By David Fagerlie
Moving to Cuenca was not a spur-of-the-moment decision for my wife and me. Our journey of coming here was born from what I learned from older people I worked with for the first eight years of my career as a social worker. When I first started this career with an internship at a nursing home, my intent was to learn more about death and dying. But, unexpectedly, what I learned were important lessons about life and living.
I started this career when I was 24; most of my clients were in their late-80s, 90s and some were over 100. The collective wisdom of working with hundreds of older adults, then infirm and needing moderate-to-significant levels of healthcare every day, informed the rest of my life. I am 64 now. If my clients, all of whom have passed on, are looking down on me, I hope they would say I was a good listener.
There were three “truisms” about life I learned from that work that I would like to share:
How many times have you exclaimed: “I can’t believe how fast that year went by;” or, “I can’t believe how fast you grew up.” The speed of time continues to increase, like a runaway train with no brakes, until the end. The last year of one’s life is the shortest year of one’s life. The lesson I took from this truism was to live life as fully as I can. I should not wait too long to enjoy experiences that interested me because there isn’t that much time to do so.
By far, the happiest of my clients were those that had accumulated a lot of memories. The amount of money they had was not much of a factor in their happiness at this point in their lives. As long as one was reasonably comfortable, what mattered most was the memories of their life experiences. Each person defined uniquely what memories were most important. For some, memories of their travels were what mattered most. For others, it was memories of their grandchildren growing up. For me, it has been a combination of my travel, relationships, and the rewards of my hobbies. I noted with interest that memories of what people did for a living were less important than other experiences unless their work provided some lasting meaningful memories. I had some extraordinary experiences working internationally on missions of higher education and scientific research. Those memories enrich my life now.
Often, as people reach an advanced age, a person might not remember something from the day before; however, memories they made in past years become especially vivid. Many of my clients could recall in great detail sights, sounds and smells of what they experienced much earlier in their lives.
By contrast, my most miserable clients were people who deprived themselves of experiences their entire life, so they would have a lot of money in retirement, only to have a stroke or other debilitating accident or illness and see their entire fortune spent on long-term healthcare. These people were bitter about a life wasted.
The lesson I took from this truism is to pay attention to what is around me and enjoy as much of what comes my way as possible. I have been proactive at “banking memories” ever since. I learned that I should do things that bring me joy and to enjoy the memories of those experiences long afterward. I learned that I should save for the future; but, within reason, I should not forgo special experiences that might not exactly fit into a budget.
Truism three is that no one can accurately predict what their retirement will be like. One of the misconceptions about aging held by many in the United States is that older people are a lot alike. That thinking is a product of a society plagued by ageism. In reality, as one ages, one becomes more unique, shaped by the life one has lived. Everyone’s retirement is as unique as a person is.
This truism suggests new retirees not take on long-term commitments until they are sure of how they want to spend their time. I first-hand saw this unfold many times. In my careers I worked with community leaders and CEOs of businesses. As they approached retirement, many of them made plans to serve on the boards of organizations they cared about, thinking they would soon have more time to devote to that activity. But, some quickly found that what they really wanted to do was spend much more time with their grandchildren in another state, travel, go on more fishing trips, explore their hobbies, and more. These people resigned their commitments early, a little embarrassed.
I am approaching the end of my first year of retirement and I discovered the wisdom of that advice. My year has not been what I predicted, and I have had the freedom from commitments to grow into what I want from life now that I no longer work an ungodly number of hours per week.
I studied intercultural communications in Mexico while a college student. I found that I loved culture and I sought intercultural experiences in my life since. It became important to me to have the opportunity to live in another culture during my lifetime. My wife and I spent all our work years since college in the nonprofit sector. We never had stock options, company pensions or large salaries. My wife supported my interest to live overseas and we took stock of what I learned decades ago from people nearing the end of their lives. We decided we would retire as soon as we could see clearly a good option to do so.
We retired a year ago this August and we moved to Cuenca in late September. For sure, there are conveniences of the United States and relationships that we miss. However, Cuenca offers the cultural experiences I crave, a climate we enjoy, and very interesting friends. Each morning I wake up to the reality that I am retired with the opportunity to explore more of what life has to offer and I have the option of choosing how my days, weeks and months will unfold. I am living a life I could not have afforded on the resources of a life-long nonprofit guy in Seattle at my current age.
The last twelve months have gone by too quickly for us; but, we are rapidly making and relishing great memories of people, places and ways of things that sometimes take us by surprise and often make us smile. I may be ready to commit to something longer-term in the near future now that I almost have my retirement “sea legs.”
David Fagerlie is among the fourth of now five generations in his Minnesota-based family to work predominately in the public service. He earned a master degree in social work administration and planning with a “letter of concentration” in the field of aging. After his career in the aging field he worked at executive management levels – mostly as CEO – in United Way organizations and in higher education, hearing-related scientific research and speech pathology services for children. David is married to Yaovapa (Yao) Ratanasopa, who is from Thailand; their adult son resides in Seattle. David and Yao retired to Cuenca in September 2015.