Today, retirement communities are all about opportunity
for Comfort Life
“I think my first instructor was confused the first time I went for a lesson,” says Katie Drysdale, who began guitar lessons nearly two years ago. “He called my name and I responded. Maybe he thought the name ‘Katie’ was a young person’s name. Mind you, he looked about 12 years old.” Katie was 87.
To a casual observer, her attendance in that guitar class might have seemed like a whim, or something to while away a few hours. Rather, it was an expression of Katie’s lifelong passion. As she says, “music is my life.” She sang as a child, including spots on CBC Radio, and once with a group of singers in an audience with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. She took violin and piano lessons, both begun before she was 10, and later turned pages for Luciano Pavarotti at a performance at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre. At 37 she took up the organ. She then taught others both vocals and piano, something which continues to this day. Now, the guitar is a natural extension of those previous experiences, inspired by a granddaughter who was learning flamenco guitar.
When Katie talks about music being her life, she’s not talking about her professional life, but her inner life. Music is the thing that, more consistently than anything else, has brought joy, challenge, and a meaningful connection with others for more than seven decades. It’s been a common thread running throughout her life, and literally one of the reasons she’s lived so well for so long. “The social world is very unpredictable [whereas] your art is very predictable,” says Seymour Bernstein. “So as you develop your emotional, intellectual and physical worlds through your art, … [you can] direct that [sense of control] into your everyday life.”
While she might not think of it in exactly those terms, that’s what music is for Katie, just as it has been for Bernstein, now 92. He had an international and very celebrated career as a touring musician, though he gave it up to follow his real passion: teaching. In 2015 he was the subject of an award-winning documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. There he says, “if you accept that your true self is what your talent is, your real identity lies within that talent that you have a passion for.” Eating, sleeping, dressing and other everyday things aren’t what define who we are.
What does? Passion. Talent. We need an outlet for this interior world as desperately as we need oxygen and clean water. To our own detriment, we live in a culture that, sadly, isn’t oriented around passion. David Brooks writes with a tone of regret that “we live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life. The competition to succeed and win admiration is so fierce that it becomes all-consuming … you spend a lot of time cultivating professional skills, but you don’t have a clear idea of the sources of meaning in life.”
Facing your “Now what?” moment
For many, that’s a big problem. Post-retirement is often when that disparity between profession and life becomes most obvious. For many it can be a jarring “Now what?” moment. Katie however, while she perhaps doesn’t say it outright, has never had that moment. She’s always had a reason to get up in the morning, and often it’s been based in the curiosity that she has for music. She didn’t take up the guitar to cultivate success, and to some extent that’s likely been true since she was a young child singing for the pleasure of it: It has never been her career, but rather her life.
And that’s what passion is really about: your needs and desires more than theirs. Yes, giving can be good, but it doesn’t need to be about teaching others, or performing, or bringing something new to the world. Retirement should be a time to be a little bit selfish and to think about what we get out of the things we do. Drudgery isn’t what gets anyone out of bed in the morning, it’s curiosity and the opportunity for joy. It doesn’t have to be about anyone else’s interest but your own, to do the things that you’ve perhaps long wanted to do.
Discover your ikigai
True, there are things that you can’t do, a fact at any age. We can’t drive at 12, and we can’t expect to play childish games all day at 30. But what Bernstein is saying is that we can do more than we think, at any age, and in ways we never imagined. We just need to take a chance. “The most important thing,” he says, “is to inspire an emotional response for all aspects of life.” And he’s not talking about inspiring others, but inspiring yourself.
That’s what Tim Tamashiro did recently, very visibly and dramatically. He had a successful career as a radio broadcaster with the CBC. But, in 2017, at age 51, he quit. “I feel like it’s time to start all over again with my creativity,” he wrote in an online message to fans. “I’ll be honest, It’s thrilling and scary at the same time. But you know what else is even scarier? Being my age and living out the rest of my days without anything new and meaningful to get out of bed for.” In a popular TEDx talk, he says he needed time to “focus on my work.” He then draws a key distinction saying “a job is what you do as a regular form of employment… work is something you do to achieve a result … like a purpose … this last year my work focused on anything I could do that was exciting, that was interesting to me.” That included travel—he went through the northwest passage on an icebreaker, and to Oregon to see a full eclipse of the sun; he went to the Dominican Republic to help build houses; he made a podcast and wrote a play.
He went to Okinawa to visit his grandparents’ birthplace, an island that’s also given the world the Japanese concept of ‘ikigai.’ The term is often translated as “reason for being,” and refers to all of the things that give value to our lives. It’s based in a sense of playfulness and creativity, and perhaps a bit of risk as well. Kobayashi Tsukasa writes that “people can feel real ikigai only when, on the basis of personal maturity, the satisfaction of various desires, love and happiness, encounters with others, and a sense of the value of life, they proceed toward self-realization.” It’s about how we feel, rather than how we make others feel. Yes, building houses in the Dominican Republic can sound like a selfless act, and certainly there’s much good that can come of it, though Tamashiro did it, first and foremost, because it was something he wanted to try. He did it for the same reason he travelled to see the solar eclipse: because he never had, and, simply, he wanted to.
Opening up opportunity
In Japan, ikigai has been a key component of Active 80 Health Plan, a program funded and run by the National Ministry of Health and Welfare, this because purpose is seen to be as important to life and longevity as food and water. Not only is that kind of federal support unheard of in Canada—we like to fund medication more than lifestyle—it’s not a new thing, having been in place in Japan since the late 1990s. That’s because it’s been shown, clinically, to achieve what we all want: a better, longer, more active life.
While the federal government isn’t funding ikigai programs in this country, at least not yet, retirement homes strongly support them. That’s what we see in Tapestry at Wesbrook Village, where Katie has renewed her passion for music. Increasingly, communities are created and run not as care facilities—places were people go to receive long-term health care—but as places of opportunity, where people go in order to find the support and freedom they need to live out their personal goals, their ikigai. For some, that’s nursing support, for others, it’s someone to cut the lawn and cook the dinners so they can go off and do more important, more fulfilling things.
For Yul Kwon, a resident at Tapestry at Wesbrook Village Vancouver’s Point Grey neighbourhood, the more fulfilling thing was running, and in particular winning the Boston Marathon. He began running in his 60s, though really started putting his energy behind the larger goals after he retired. To train, he gets up at 6 each morning and does 100 push ups and sit ups. That’s just to get warmed up, and to strengthen his back. Often, he runs a 9km circuit, now known as Kwon’s loop, with his daughter, who is also an avid runner. They train in the Pacific Spirit Park, adjacent to Tapestry Westbrook. The park is set within the University of British Columbia endowment lands, including the entire UBC campus and numerous recreational activities from bird watching, to ocean views, to hiking and biking.
The training paid off. Into his 80s he placed in the Vancouver marathon numerous times. Then, in 2016 he placed first in the over-80 category at the Boston Marathon with a time of 4 hours and 31 minutes. He says, “as I ran across the finish line, I wasn’t sure if I had won. I ran over to the family meeting area where my son and daughter were waiting for me with their families. My son exclaimed ‘DAD! You won!’. This was the best feeling. It’s been a lifelong goal to win in Boston.” But it’s not the end. He’s still running, because that’s his ikigai. There are more marathons in his future, though it’s about the running, about living that life, not specifically the races or the wins.
Bill Klos’s ikigai was teaching. Now a resident at Sifton Westhill, in Kitchener-Waterloo, he was a high school teacher there for 33 years. For Bill, teaching was work, in the way that Tamashiro defines it—he did it as much for himself as for anyone else. Once he reached retirement age, though, he had no more outlet for his passion. “I developed some health problems,” he confesses, “I wasn’t taking good care of myself.” After moving into the Westhill, though, he found a way to revive his zeal for teaching: he developed an iPad course. “I teach two ladies every Thursday. They’re in their late nineties, and they’re just learning the iPad and they’re doing really well. And I still go into teacher mode, ” he says. “I still love to challenge people to learn, and yes, teaching still kicks in. You want to help them get to someplace.” His love of teaching has found new means of expression.
For many other people, ikigai has been relegated to a pastime while they pursued careers that paid the bills. Virginia and Bob have been married for 69 years, and spent their working lives in practical pursuits. Gardening was a simple joy that sustained them in spare hours, but at Mulberry PARC in Burnaby, you might say it’s blossomed into something more. “We always had huge garden. Bob grew the vegetables and I grew the flowers,” says Virginia, but now it’s “the love of our life.” That passion has led to recognition; they’ve been awarded best overall garden by a local Garden Society. The recognition is not important to them as the daily joy they get out of daily pursuing something that was always only an avocation.
Ikigai is simply distinct for everyone. Janet Tsujimoto is a resident at Tapestry at Village Gate West in Toronto has a similar story. Her paintings hang on the wall of her suite, and knitting projects sit next to a favourite chair. Around the room are dolls she has designed. Much of this is a product of the time and the facilities within the community. “When I moved to Tapestry, I decided to join the art class,” she says. “I had not done much painting before I moved here.” Her art has now found other homes, too, and been featured in Tapestry publications.
Reconsider life’s possibilities
When considering retirement living, it’s often the physical aspects of aging that come to the fore. However, when we speak to people in retirement communities, it’s the lifestyle opportunities that many speak of first and frequently. Yes, getting care may be an important impetus for many, if not now then in foresight. While care can sustain us, it’s not what makes us live. There are far more exciting things to think about, such as taking a cooking class, discussing politics, or watching a movie with friends. More important than mobility is having a sense of autonomy over when to seek out a conversation, and when to take advantage of solitude on our own terms, to read a book or paint a portrait.
Indeed, that should be the basis of deciding where to live at any age—through the lens of possibility. It serves everyone to consider any transition in that light. Retirement living can provide a lifestyle based in the shared experience of a single peer group. It can provide a heightened sense of autonomy—it’s not about bussing and cars, it’s about recapturing agency. Finding a residence shouldn’t be about finding a place to stay, but finding a place to live, a place to continue living a life with meaning. That’s what Bill sees as the foremost benefit of life at the Westhill, even if it wasn’t one he imagined when he first moved in. This is true for him as it is for Janet, Katie, Virginia and Bob. Their move into retirement communities gave them—as it has very many others—an opportunity to live out their ikigai.
Ikigai isn’t entirely different from more familiar concepts like vocation, calling or passion. However, there’s insight to be gained when thinking about familiar ideas in a new language. In other pages, we explore moais, hygge and lykke. We want to cast new light on familiar notions all of us are in danger of taking for granted.
Words shape our experience, and adding to our vocabulary always gives us new frames of reference. It’s similar to the effect a move or a change in scenery can have on you. You refresh your perspective. This is exactly what happens in retirement communities across the country, for people who have opened their minds and made a move. Familiar routines become new and consequently people find a renewed love of life, not only our inner life as seen above, but our health and our social life. It all adds up to a renewed joy in life for those who’ve explored the possibilities.