My wife and I officially became empty-nesters in August, so last winter, we took a “test drive” of retirement. We spent two weeks lounging on a beach in Florida. Sitting out in the sun and doing nothing was fun at first, but after five days, we felt bored. It got me thinking about our newly empty nest and eventual retirement, and I’m realizing that my idea of fulfillment in this phase of life has changed.
Sure, we’re going on more hikes, getting dinner with friends more often, and taking a few more road trips. We also remodeled our kitchen—something I’ve wanted to do for years. But overall, Jill and I are finding the most meaningful way to spend our empty nest years is investing in relationships, not entertaining ourselves.
Many people picture retirement as a chance to fulfill their dreams, whether that’s lounging on a beach or taking a whirlwind tour of Europe; however, there’s a downside to chasing thrills. It can create a focus on yourself that leaves you feeling lonely.
Geriatric psychiatrist Marc Agronin described this phenomenon in a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, explaining, “Rather than feeling exhilarated by a life of bucket-list adventures, [my clients] often end up feeling depressed and disconnected.”
Perhaps this is one reason depression rates increase as people age, but there’s a better way. The International Council on Active Aging found that seniors who volunteered, exercised, and stayed socially involved were less likely to experience depression in retirement.
I talked with a few friends and McKenzie homeowners whose nests have also emptied, and their experiences echo these findings. Empty-nesters Brad and Gabriela Shearer have crossed the globe—traveling to five continents, dining at the Sydney Opera House, and seeing the top of the Eiffel Tower—but with all this travel, they’ve said they have to make a point to stay in touch with friends and family.
“It’s so easy to let time slip away and realize it’s been weeks or months since you’ve spoken [to someone],” Brad says. “Relationships are an investment in people’s lives, and if you don’t put in, you can’t draw out.”
To make sure travel doesn’t leave them isolated, the Shearers send cards to family and friends and throw get-togethers with their neighbors. “It is healthier to be connected and have positive relationships … to share the good times and lend support in the tough ones,” Brad says.
“For us, family has come first,” agrees empty-nester Doug Ranck. When he and his wife, Ursula, take vacations, they almost always bring their daughters along. The trips are about bonding, not checking another destination off the list.
Similarly, my friend Trish Shobert uses trips to see her daughter instead of visiting exotic destinations. “Since she has mostly lived far away, it’s important to make memories with her,” Trish says.
It shouldn’t be surprising that focusing on others can make you happier than focusing on yourself. Retirement can be a chance to use your skills and experience to serve others. As empty-nester Jim Shobert says, “While we might retire or transition from our formal career, we were never designed to cease being productive.” He believes that the retirement-age population has a “huge amount of talent and energy” to offer and that everybody benefits when they stay active and involved their communities.
I’m finding that to be true. Volunteering with Young Life ministry and building schools and medical clinics through the Jubilee Village Project have been incredibly rewarding experiences, and Jill and I are both looking for more opportunities to volunteer in Indianapolis. We’re using our recreational time to connect with friends and our newly remodeled kitchen to host dinner parties for them. As I look ahead, I can’t say thank you enough to the friends, family, coworkers, and customers who make up our community. We’re lucky to have you, and we’re grateful for your presence in our lives.