Creative Aging: Rethinking Retirement and Non-Retirement in a Changing World

Explores the spiritual dimensions of retirement and aging and offers creative ways for you to share your gifts and experience, particularly when retirement leaves you questioning who you are when you are no longer defined by your career.

Marjory Zoet Bankson

6 x 9, 160 pp | 978-1-59473-281-2

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Discover Your Unique Gift

“Creative aging is a choiceɮ If we remember that transition always begins with endings, moves on to a wilderness period of testing and trying, and only then do we reach the beginning of something new, then we can embrace this encore period of life with hope and curiosity, remembering always that it is our true nature to be creative, to be always birthing new ways of sharing our planet together.”

—from the Epilogue

In a practical and useful way, Marjory Zoet Bankson explores the spiritual dimensions of retirement and aging. She offers creative ways for you to share your gifts and experience, particularly when retirement leaves you questioning who you are when you are no longer defined by your career.

Drawing on stories of people who have reinvented their lives in their older years, Bankson explores the issues you need to address as you move into this generative period of life:

  • Release: Letting go of the vocational identity associated with your career or primary work
  • Resistance: Feeling stuck, stagnant, resisting change
  • Reclaiming: Drawing energy from the past, discovering unused gifts
  • Revelation: Forming a new vision of the future
  • Crossing Point: Moving from stagnation to generativity
  • Risk: Stepping out into the world with new hope
  • Relating: Finding or creating new structures for a new kind of work

“Precious and insightful ... will teach you how to age consciously as well as respect your limitations and joyfully reclaim your purpose and call. A treasure. Don’t grow old without it.”

Rev. Holly W. Whitcomb, author, Seven Spiritual Gifts of Waiting

“Aimed at but by no means limited to the boomer generation, hits the right note ... aging is not just about giving back, but about giving forward ... offering ourselves for some larger purpose rather than simply protecting what we have.”

Fr. Tom Ryan, author, Soul Fire: Accessing Your Creativity

“A great gift to everyone in the field of aging. With gentle, deep encouragement ... [it] walks readers through what has been lost, mourned, reclaimed, and points toward finding the creative call in the later years.... Strongly recommended for everyone in the third stage as well as professional and interested laypersons.”

Phoebe Girard, hospice worker; co-founder, Conscious Aging Network of New Mexico; former editorial board member, ASA Forum on Religion, Spirituality and Aging

“A must-read for anyone who wants more out of their later years than the traditional retirement experience.... A unique contribution to the field of literature on aging and retirement.”

Molly Srode, author, Creating a Spiriting Retirement and Keeping Spiritual Balance as We Grow Older

“A deep and stirring reminder that the later years of our lives can be creative, rich, and even more fulfilling than those that went before.”

Deborah Sokolove, artist and director, Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion; associate professor of art and worship, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.

“[A] refreshing blend of deep wisdom, relational authenticity, and practical tools ... a book that will make a difference. My list of the people I want to give this book to is growing.”

Doug Wysockey-Johnson, executive director, Lumunos (formerly Faith At Work)

“A road map of wisdom for the crossroads of life. [W]eaves insight and story [to] illuminate the phases of transition that we all will face in the future.... Encourages us to move the conversation about such change from our head to our hearts.”

Terri Lynn Simpson, contemplative programs consultant, Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage, Washington National Cathedral

“Assures, encourages, challenges readers to embrace the questions, fears, and most significantly the gifts of aging. The shared stories of elders comfort the reader who is walking the labyrinth of aging and seeks a spiritual path of dignity, grace, faith and love.”

Jean M. Richardson, executive director, Kirkridge Retreat Center

“Powerful and compelling ... deserves to be read and practiced by anyone, regardless of their age, who wants to reconnect with their spirit and live a life worth having.”

John J. Scherer, author, Five Questions That Change Everything; founder, The Scherer Leadership Center

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction: Making the Extra Years Count 1

Rethinking Aging 7

The Inner Work of Leaving 23

Moving Beyond Security 41

Riches from the Past 55

Where Does Newness Come From? 71

Joining Inner and Outer Worlds 87

Beginning Again with More Focus 101

Finding the Right Form for Now 117

Epilogue: Living Wholeheartedly 133
Suggestions for Further Reading 137


Why did you write this book?
I noticed how many people were coming to my retreats on discerning a call when they were just about to retire. Obviously they weren’t finished with life and were looking for something different to do that would make a contribution.

What does retirement mean to you?
I think it’s a new season for call, a chance to “fill out” parts of our lives that had to be suppressed or left undeveloped. Sometimes a health crisis or a financial crisis demands that we dig deeper and discover new strengths.

Why did you use the word non-retirement in the subtitle?
I think the whole concept of retirement is flawed. It’s a marketing ploy. It implies that we will find satisfaction in being entertained rather than in discovering a new kind of purpose at this stage of life. Non-retirement was one way to suggest that call continues throughout one’s lifetime, even though its form changes.

Do you think it’s important to be paid for work?
That’s really hard to answer. If you need money for basic living expenses, then it’s obviously important to be paid. But if you have those basic expenses taken care of, creativity often includes the joy of giving where there is a real need. I charge a modest amount ($50) for my unfired burial urns because I want to remind people that it’s a handmade object, but I am not trying to pay my rent with that.

You mention people wanting to feel “useful, but not used.” Is that related to being paid?
When “retired people” are expected to volunteer for things they don’t even like to do, it doesn’t take long to feel used. But I think part of the inner work of aging is learning to set boundaries, to speak up for your own needs and to be an advocate for others who don’t have a voice. Then you can be useful in the larger framework of creating the common good.

Do you think older people are more interested in the kind of spiritual questions you raise?
Yes, I do. They’re more likely to wonder why we have been granted this extra time. When Social Security was instituted in the 1930s, the average life expectancy was just under 65 years. Now it’s 80, more or less. When we add the element of good health and a whole generation of women who’ve now had experience in the public sphere, we have an enormous reservoir of experience. What to do with it is a spiritual question. C.G. Jung observed that we come to a crossing point at midlife, when we catch sight of death and realize that our time is limited. We can either continue to devote our lives to our own ego development (repeating earlier mistakes or successes), or we can turn and devote our lives to God (the more expansive way).

Do men and women approach retirement differently?
I think that depends on whether someone has achieved a certain kind of respect in his or her field. If that ego need has been fulfilled, I think both men and women come to this later stage of life with hopes for a generative new call rather than just “putting in time� or being a spectator. People who’ve worked really hard often feel entitled to travel or relax as a “reward,” but I think we are created to be challenged, to grow and to give in some purposeful way. It gives meaning to our lives. Creative aging is a hands-on approach to spirituality. It’s not about art, necessarily, but about finding something that engages your time, energy and problem-solving skills.

You don’t have much in your book about financial planning. Isn’t that important?
Yes, it is, but other people have written extensively about that. I think a spiritual goal for this stage of life could well be learning to live more simply: less space, less stuff, more time for cooking, gardening, slow meals and friends. I suspect that most of us could live on less than we think we need to sustain a certain lifestyle. Being creative doesn’t require lots of money, but it does take time and attention.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered in researching this book?
I was surprised by how generous and creative people already are, without being aware that it might be a new call. Naming something as God’s call can help one set priorities, screen out distractions and focus on a few things. For many people, though, there was a vague sense of filling their time with too many activities—of needing to sort and sift and slow down without coming to a full stop. It’s a habit of busyness that we carry from being overworked and caught up in a culture of scarcity.

What’s the most important factor for aging creatively?
Willingness to be a beginner. That means making mistakes again, even though we’ve been taught that adults know how to do things. Most of us are helped by taking classes or buying a book with questions to ponder; setting times to practice a new skill or an old love; or finding some others to share with�maybe new friends who aren’t invested in your past. The other factor is learning to listen to your inner voice. For that we need silence. No music. No books. No talking. Just space and time to listen and to pay attention to what comes up for you. Old hurts can sometimes block creativity, but if they surface in the silence they can be dealt with.

What if you don’t believe in God. Does that change the picture for creative aging?
Belief is the framework for choices to extend yourself toward people unlike yourself. If you believe that God is present in the unfolding story of creation, then your choices matter. If like Martin Luther King Jr. you believe that “the arc of creation bends toward justice,” that gives you a framework for your sense of call. But if you believe that creation is a random happening, then there is much more reason to hang on to what you’ve got and not take too many risks. Comfort probably becomes the criteria for choice. The important question here is, What is my understanding of God? And answering that may be the creative intellectual work of aging, because it shapes our attitude toward diminishment and dying, which is another part of creativity.

How is dying part of creativity?
Endings are always part of new beginnings. Without death, we would soon be crowded off this planet. Those cycles of death and birth happen in our lives too. If we can step away from the pain of endings and remember that we are part of the larger cycles of creation, it gives us a different perspective—a hopeful stance in the midst of loss. That is why I value my church community, where I can be reminded regularly of God’s creation story and my small part in it.

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Chapter 1

  • What events in Moses’s story do you identify with the most? Why?
  • How and when has your sense of identity shifted throughout your life?
  • What do you think of the idea of exploring “the shadow side of ourselves that we have often projected onto others” (p. 18)? What parts of yourself do you need to embrace, or where would you like to grow, in order to experience “psychic wholeness”?
  • What part of the pattern of change are you in right now (release, resistance, reclaiming, revelation, risk, relating)? What part would you like to be in? What steps can you take to move forward?

Chapter 2

  • Recall five endings that were significant for you. What was being completed with each ending? How did you acknowledge the importance of each one? What symbol or memento do you have of that ending?
  • How do you mark major turning points in your life today? What kind of object, such as a milestone, a cairn of rocks or a prayer shawl, could you make to symbolize an important departure you have experienced or are contemplating?
  • Is there something in your work that still needs completion and release? What ritual or action might help you move on? Is there someone with whom you might share that release?

Chapter 3

  • Where do you feel stuck or resistant?
  • How might you make time in your week for the restorative power of doing nothing?
  • How might you use your Sabbath time for the internal work of listening for clues about the future?
  • Do you listen to your physical body for guidance? Is there some way that you could engage your body and then spend some time writing about whatever comes to mind?

Chapter 4

  • How could you pay more attention to your dreams? Find someone to share them with? Give them objective reality with color or clay?
  • Do you have a small group of listeners in your life? Who are two or three others who might offer thoughtful questions in the manner of a Quaker clearness committee?
  • Are you aware of old interests, such as gardening or paper dolls, that might hold the seed of a new direction?
  • If you are a more systematic thinker, what interests or hobbies might you explore?
  • What has sustained you through difficult times? Is that something you might develop?

Chapter 5

  • It�s easy to identify the things that make us angry or disgusted. It�s harder to identify what we want to support or stand for. Look at the daily newspaper and circle one or two articles that really tug at your heart. What would you like to change? What do you dream of?
  • Have you ever experienced a sense of being in exactly the right place at the right time? Have you experienced synchronicity, when two unrelated events coincide perfectly? What might this be telling you?
  • Think back to your family, faith tradition or social context, or to a glaring example of injustice that tugs at your heart. Is there an old sorrow that fuels your passion today? Is there an early experience you might want to heal by writing it as a story?
  • Can you think of an example of resonance between yourself and another person’s story? Or between a desire for your family (community, school, church) and their responsiveness?

Chapter 6

  • How would you describe the tension between your hopeful vision for the future and your current reality?
  • How would you describe your deep gladness now?
  • What is a deep hunger in the world that touches you?
  • Create a list of people who have been guides and mentors. Write a brief description of the top five. Imagine that you are meeting with each one and ask them for guidance at this time in your life. Write down what you hear, even if it makes no sense right now.

Chapter 7

  • What part of your life is asking to be born right now? Is there some risk in that for you?
  • How would you describe your “resilience quotient”? What has helped you strengthen your resilience?
  • What kind of work did you consider useful in the previous decade? How has that changed? What do you consider useful now?
  • What would it take for you to let others help you with discernment?

Chapter 8

  • Think of a time when a community (not necessarily your workplace) helped you do something that you had always wanted to do. Recall some of the important elements of that help. Do you have such a community now? If not, where might you find one?
  • Pick out a group of people (such as Wednesday Weeders) to create a change in your world that you want to see. How are you related to that group? How might you ask them to help with a change?
  • When you read the newspaper or listen to the news, is there some situation or group of people that tugs at your heart? Is there some specific action (such as at the drop-in center) that they need?
  • Is there some community that you might gather to meet that need?