Everyone who talks and writes about later life – from financial advisors to aging gurus – emphasizes the need for a later life plan.
In my case, I started thinking about later life when I was 43 – but the catalyst for me was the untimely death of my father.
My father was a picture of good health. Equally important, he was living a robust, purpose-driven life even as he and my mother retired together in Florida. They were blessed with all the elements of happiness: Gratitude, generosity, a servant’s heart and optimism.
Then, two months to the day after they moved into their home on the beach, my father suffered a sudden heart attack. He didn’t recover.
As the emotion of losing my father – and seeing my mother lose her husband of more than 40 years – diminished, I began to think more analytically about what had happened.
That’s when I recognized a startling, life-changing fact. Not only had my father died at age 65, but both of my grandfathers had also died at age 65.
To my primitive way of thinking, one lesson was clear: My chances of living beyond age 65 were slim.
As a result, at age 43, I started planning and conducting my life in a more thoughtful and probing way. Planning for retirement was the farthest from my mind. Instead, I was planning to make the most of the time I had remaining – for learning, exploring, teaching, helping others and devoting time to working with leaders of public authorities and private enterprises, including non-profits in organized efforts to make the world a better place. It taught me the uniqueness of time and precious character of life.
That’s when I began to understand that among our gifts of time, treasure and talent, time alone cannot be replaced.
Enter The Marble Jar
Given the longevity “lesson” I had taken from my own family experience, I figured family life expectancy at age 65 minus my age 43 gave me 22 years to go. Multiplied by 12 months, that meant I probably had 264 months before I bought the farm.
Because I was determined to “finish well” – i.e., make the most of my gifts in the time remaining – I wanted a way to focus on projects and activities that would be satisfying, consequential and, to the extent needed, income producing, and to avoid drifting through a scripted life that might never reach “retirement.”
That’s when I decided to make the purchase of a large, gallon-sized glass jar to hold 264 marbles. The marbles represented my (likely) remaining life in months. I kept the jar on my bedroom chest for 22 years and saw it every day.
At the end of each month, I removed a marble and took a moment to think about the events (blessings, achievements, shortcomings, wrong turns, etc.) of the previous weeks and to think in a focused, purpose-driven way about the next month.
On May 1, 2004, I removed the last marble – and I was still hale and hearty!
That’s why every year since 2004 has been a “bonus year” for me. That’s why I call my column Bonus Years. Because life expectancy was 61 years when FDR made Social Security the law of the land, I now consider every year beyond age 61 a bonus year – and I am astonished by the wide variety of ways that Americans use their bonus years in purpose-driven work – including volunteer, enrichment and Samaritan work as well as paid work.
In the words of Dr. Samuel Johnson, “Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.” That’s how my “marbled years” before age 65 taught me the value of focus, discipline, patience and resolve – and that our life here is but a temporary assignment that can end anytime.
“It’s better to wear out than rust out”…
Later-life is still a part of the journey, not the destination. The joys, lessons, talents and treasures that we’ve built up over the years are not wasted simply because our clock has ticked over from 60 to 61.
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