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Tales of Going ‘From Working to Wisdom’

In this excerpt, two people talk candidly about life after their spouse's death


Two years ago, as I was about to retire, I was faced with many questions: Would my days be meaningful? How should I spend my time? How did others approach this experience? Would the challenges of growing old prove too great?
 
The books about retirement and aging didn’t prove helpful. They were full of clichés and one-size-fits-all tips or they were “I-have-a-theory-about-aging’ books written by academics. Then I came across the book Working by Studs Terkel.
 
He interviewed people and asked them to discuss their jobs and lives. He used the transcripts as the basis of his book. It occurred to me that I could attempt a similar project addressing the concerns that I and others felt as we prepared to retire.

(MORE: How to Keep Hazards From Ruining Retirement)
 
So starting in the summer of 2013, I set out to find a diverse group of older Americans, interview them, and publish their words in a book. That became From Working to Wisdom: The Adventures and Dreams of Older Americans.
 
When I began, I thought I was assembling a book about retirement. Soon, I realized that, although the book was that, it was much more. Even more than a book about the experience of growing older, it is a book concerned with choice.
 
Here are two stories I heard:
 
James Williams, 60: What Would She Want? (Retired in 2000)
 
Born in Louisiana, James Williams spent much of his youth living abroad before settling in Las Cruces, N.M. It was there, as a teenager, in 1971, that he met Sharon, whom he would marry eight years later. The couple attended the same college and later worked for the same company, moving to Minneapolis and then Hong Kong. After their children were born, they returned to Minnesota, where James started a business and Sharon worked for their church. In 2000, when she was 43, Sharon underwent an elective hysterectomy. After the surgery, she was overdosed with morphine, causing respiratory and cardiac arrest. Deprived of oxygen, she suffered an irreversible brain injury and lapsed into a coma. At the time, their children were in elementary school. Sharon survived in that state for eight years before passing in 2008, at 51.
 
When my wife became ill, my mission in life changed. The most important thing I could do was try to save her. She was my sole focus. I liquidated my business and put together the best team I could, people from around the world. I got a nursing team to take care of her 24 hours a day — as many as 20 nurses.
 
Eight years, every single day, it was my life. I did everything I could, pursued every technology that existed. I even flew her and her nurses to the Dominican Republic, where there’s a clinic run by an American doctor providing embryonic stem cell treatments. My hope — my expectation — was that treatment would repair and replace brain cells damaged by oxygen deprivation. I was searching everywhere.

(MORE: Building a Social Life After a Spouse's Death)
 
In the course of my search, I encountered hyperbaric oxygen treatment. It appeared to help Sharon, and to ease her discomfort. Ultimately, I became interested in building a clinic offering that treatment.
 
We’re involved in an important study right now with the National Brain Injury Rescue and Rehabilitation Project. We’re one of 33 clinics participating in treating veterans with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. The first phase has demonstrated a 28 percent increase in brain capacity, after only an eight-week session.
 
My only goal now is to keep providing the service. Originally, I got involved and built the clinic to save my wife. Since then we’ve treated more than 700 patients. For the last year, we’ve been treating Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for free. I’m using the limited money I have to subsidize treatments. But I can’t do that forever.
 
I have a foundation to raise funds to provide treatments for kids with autism. In the Twin Cities, we have a large Somali population; they have the highest incidence of autism in the U.S. I’ve put together a network of service providers who discount their services by 25 percent and my foundation picks up the remaining 75 percent.
 
I’m also involved in a lot of community programs. I’ve found one particularly meaningful, One Hundred Strong Who Care. I go to inner-city schools and encourage kids to continue their education.
 
When I first began to think about this path, it was exciting. I had tremendous hopes for it. My wife…my baby would do anything to help other people, so I invested a lot in building this clinic to save her and to help others. We weren’t able to save her, but we’ve helped people with traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, stroke, Lyme disease, autism, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.
 
Something positive, something productive has come out of this nightmare. Since my wife died, I’m not looking too far off. Ten-year projections just aren’t my reality.
 
My wife’s life is over. That outweighs any good that I might do. I ask, what would she want? A healthy, stable family. But, more than that, the opportunity to be a blessing to others.

(MORE: Getting Through Grief)
 
Carol Kimball Sigelman, 68: An Identity Revision Process
 
Carol Kimball Sigelman is a Ph.D. professor of psychology at George Washington University, where she has worked for over 20 years. She has studied and written extensively on child development and the issues people face as they move through life stages. Recently, she faced two major upheavals: the death of her husband of 40 years and a return to classroom teaching and research after 13 years as an associate vice president in charge of research, graduate studies and other aspects of academic affairs. She has no children; all her relatives are in the Minneapolis area. Most of her friends and social contacts are in the university community.
 
I wanted to talk about this topic because I teach adult development, and having turned 65 I am acutely aware of aging and retirement.
 
After my husband died, I wanted to get back, to have a purpose, to have my social connections. So the last thing on my mind is retirement. I am focused on resuming my career as a professor. That takes some work if you haven’t taught for 13 years.
 
It’s almost as if at this age I’m trying to build a new career, or at least revive an old career, at a time when other people are thinking about retiring. But I have every reason to maintain my connection to the university. It is the source of my social life and my sense of purpose and challenge, and everything else good. I’m happy at work. I’ve always been a workaholic — spending a lot of time on work, whatever it is. I enjoy it.
 
Taking care of my house and finances are things I didn’t have to mess with before my husband died because he handled them. So now I have to think ahead. Before he got sick, I just assumed, “Oh well, we’ll figure something out.” I had a sense of what my future looked like and now I don’t. The future is something I should be thinking about. Yet, on the other hand, I don’t want to. Most of me is saying, “Let’s see what happens.”
 
I haven’t made major life choices for 40 years, and even some of my decisions before that were more accidental than deliberate. I married at 23. I got into my particular graduate program because a professor handed me a flyer and suggested I might be interested. Even my career choice was fairly accidental. I didn’t intend to be a university administrator. I was picked to be one. See what I’m saying?
 
I have the sense that I’ve never planned anything and I think, Oh, I’m supposed to plan now?

Age 65 is a milestone. Though I know better, there’s a tendency to think, Oh, now I’m in the category of old people. That’s partly due to bereavement, which dominates your thoughts and makes you feel that your mind doesn’t work right. I have been more aware of memory lapses, just difficulty concentrating. But it’s hard to separate the effects of bereavement and aging in what’s going on.
 
I don’t have a vision of what I want to do after working. I look at the future and I think it would be unusual for me to set big goals and pursue them. Part of me feels like I may need to do that, particularly if a partner doesn’t come along. I’ll have to create a future myself.
 
I think I’d like a relationship again, if the right relationship came along. I think I would find fulfillment.
 
I’m a workaholic, but I’m discovering that I can enjoy being lazy, too. Returning to teaching means I have summers off. I mix work and play better in the summer, and I love the freedom of deciding what to do when. I figure retirement may feel like that. Just mix it up better.
 
Even though I just witnessed a death in my bedroom, where we provided hospice care to my husband, I feel invulnerable and believe that I’m going to live to an old age. I have a few of the aging kinds of things, osteoporosis and high cholesterol, but basically I’m very healthy. So I’m not thinking about death.
 
I’ve been interested in the question of how to maintain your optimism when you’re able to do less and less. The picture is very good until you get up to really old age, 85 or older, with multiple health issues. Up until then, older people seem to focus on enjoying life more than younger people do. At the same time, there’s an increase in spirituality. It has been shown that when you see time running short, you emphasize emotional fulfillment with loved ones over other goals like acquiring more information and meeting new people.
 
It’s also been shown that on a day-to-day basis older people have more positive emotional experiences than younger people. Older people may also have more emotional control. They don’t get all bent out of shape over things that would cause younger people to go ballistic. Older adults have a full range of emotions, but better emotional control.
 
Also, we change how we judge ourselves as we get older. Right now, I’m beating myself up thinking that I should meet the same standards
as younger people. Maybe at some point I’ll shift and start comparing myself to other aging colleagues and decide I’m not doing so badly after all.
 
I’m still in an unsettled transition period, with conflicting feelings about myself, my life, and what the rest of my life is going to look like. Perhaps I’m waiting for something to happen, and maybe it will.
 
It’s like an identity crisis. My identity was tied up with my husband, with my administrative job. I’ve been forced into an identity revision process. It can be interesting and invigorating, and it can lead in new, good directions.

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