Meaning In Retirement: Setting Intentions

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The other day I had lunch with Anna, a friend from the old job.   Because of her health, she said she’s feeling wiped out every evening from work and might retire soon.  She said she was worried that her life would lack meaning in retirement, meaning she gets in abundance at work.

Meaning at work

It’s easy for me to get what Anna means.  After all, we had the same job, case managers for adults with serious, chronic mental illnesses.  We were up against the issues of ageing folks who had trouble managing the details of their lives, and we were trying to give them more skills all the while to be more independent and find meaning in their lives.

This job requires a lot of documentation, driven by a computer system that morphs continuously trying to comply with multiple insurance companies and state and federal rules.  It is this side that drives most of us out eventually, not the client care side. Anna is just about done with it.

We provide caring services for all our clients, of course, but we have our favorites.  We’re only human, after all.  We may miss those and worry about them after we leave.

I am lucky that I got a replacement for my job to take over, and I got to train her.  It was easier to let go and quit worrying, though I still care.  I’d known many of these folks for nearly 30 years.  It’s not clear that this will be possible for Anna because of her situation.  After all, I could give the boss 6 months’ notice.

Another thing that may be influencing Anna is that our longtime boss, who handed us off last year to another for supervision, is retiring at the end of this year.  She’s worked for him a lot longer than I did, and she already misses his management style since he quit supervising us directly.  Work without him will probably feel too weird for her.

Finding meaning in retirement

Anna’s big worry about retirement was replacing that feeling that she had “something to get out of bed for.”


We took an inventory of things  she finds important in her life.  Anna is a dog person who currently has three of her own and one belonging to her granddaughter, who lives close by.  Supposedly they’ll move out of state in spring.

So she has four dogs to dote on, three great-grandchildren to babysit, and kids to talk to long-distance.  One of them just moved cross-country for a great new job.  Anna’s proud but missing that one now.

Anna used to go to a book club once a month but that disbanded,  She still reads voraciously and plays audiobooks in her car when she travels to other towns, which she does often for work.


Once upon a time Anna went to knitting/spinning groups in the evenings, but she says she hasn’t the stamina to do that lately because work takes all her energy.  She also says she needs to hunt down the knitting stuff and take it up again.

So, energy is one commodity she has in limited amounts.

That affects how far she can travel.  She is used to driving regionally to see her kids; she isn’t used to taking her husband on these trips and isn’t sure about the long trip to see the child who moved.   Being the child of a military career man, she traveled a lot when she was young and feels that’s enough for her.

Anna is not comfortable in crowds.  Neither am I but I can go to meetings and be OK; she isn’t, really.  She got me to go to a concert in a tiny church a couple of years ago with her; the place was half-full and a mutual friend was in the program so we had a great time.  And she could do knit nights and book clubs where she knew everyone.

First step

I shared this habit I’ve made up since retiring, of setting intentions.  It seems to help me with structuring my time and adding meaning in retirement.

Each night before sleep, I pick out three things I will do the next day.  If my husband wants to have me go shopping with him, I list that and whatever else will fit around it.  Sometimes that means going to the post office on the way out, or knit on a pair of mittens.

Other days I set an intention to get up early, do laundry and pare apples, and then read up on things in the afternoon.  At the end of the day we had clean laundry and applesauce and a few more chapters under my belt.

All without the alarm clock, which I hate.

I told Anna that setting intentions for the following day helps me get up in the morning.  This requires selecting activities that mean something to me, possibly my husband, and sometimes others.  It’s like promising to do them.  Keeping promises makes you feel good and generates a feeling of having meaning in retirement.

Setting intentions

Being a veteran case manager, Anna took to this idea easily and began generating examples of intention-setting.  In this way we got some more questions answered.

“Is it OK to just do things that make me happy?”

Of course!  Some days my big idea of a good day is getting in some spinning (which is fun for me), reading some in a novel (also fun), and going out with friends (another fun thing).  It’s an all-for-me day, which I never used to get.

“But wait.  Doesn’t meaning involve other people?”

Usually we think of it that way.  So some days you may set an intention to do something with your spouse, or help a friend with a project, or work on a task that benefits others.  You might get a volunteer job and set the intention to put in a couple of hours the next day on that.  Those days keep you connected with people.

Sometimes, though, we have to think that we’re people too, and if we don’t care for ourselves, we won’t be much good to anyone else.

Besides, our identity without work is tied up in our preferences, talents, and feelings now more than ever.  And what good is meaning to a person without an identity?

So if my intention is to blow an entire day on the sheep and wool festival, it’s because I am a big user of wool and I like to see what other people are doing with it.  The fact that I’m in a van full of friends going just adds a social dimension for the long ride.

So in the end, we decided that Anna could comfortably set an intention to indulge the puppies in some way, finish that book on such-and-so, and take a nap so she could babysit the great-grands for a couple of hours.  Or call her kids, catch up, and read all day.  Whatever fits.

Anna now has one way to arrange for meaning in retirement, when she chooses to retire.   Comments, anyone?



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