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Planning Retirement Online

Finding a new life
                          November 2004

Jeanne DavisFinding a new life

Jeanne Davis tells an intimate, personal story about how she coped after her husband died..

Bereavement, retirement, moving house. On the scale of life’s most stressful events these are the top three. Six years ago, I was overwhelmed by all of them. My husband died , I had given up my job to care for him (he had Parkinson’s) and I was now living in London, in a city (and in a country) I had visited many times, but not put down roots.
How do you find a new life?  It was not by

planning. If someone had asked me, “Where do you want to be in five years?” a question often asked when you’re young and starting work, I could not have answered. Nor could I have set an objective and plotted a strategic plan. There was no objective. There was no vision. Much of what happened in the next years happened by serendipity, by unforeseen encounters, by meeting people I could not have envisaged.

What’s first? Now that I am alone, where do I want to live?
Our home together for forty-two years had been in Washington, D.C. David’s work was with the World Bank. He was English, I’m American, and we came to England every two years or so on home leave. Eighteen months before he died, our two children, who were both living in London, suggested we uproot and move to London so they could help with his care. I retired from my work - with an over 50s organisation - earlier than planned. David had already retired, and we sold up, renting a furnished flat until we found a permanent home in London. We did not reach the buying stage. He died unexpectedly, mercifully of a massive haemorrhage, which is the quick way he wanted to go.

I decided I would stay in London.
There seemed little reason to return to Washington. No compelling job to return to, no house. My children and the first grandchild were in London; my sister and brother, both with English spouses , were here, too.

The first year was busy with sorting out finances, planning a memorial, looking for a flat, buying one, arranging to ship over the furniture we had stored in Washington.

After that, clouding the horizon now, how to fill the days? I had some London contacts through my work and decided to offer my services and knowledge, gratis, to similar ageing organisations such as Age Concern. Although greeted with much enthusiasm, nothing concrete came of the meetings. One national charity was only interested in getting a substantial amount of funding from the U.S. group which I knew was not going to be available.

Prior to the job with the over 50s association, I had been a writer for the National Geographic. But who was going to hire a 68 year old for a staff position? Should I try freelance journalism? But I didn’t know the UK media market and I was rusty.

Since I’m an inveterate course taker
, I enrolled in a journalism course at the City Lit. It was just what I needed for confidence. My writing unrusted and the very knowledgeable tutor, Helen Franks, gave us practical advice on how to sell, what to sell and who to sell to. My thanks to Helen whom you know as editor of laterlife.

I did sell several stories, notably one to the Guardian on grandparents
who were bringing up their grandchildren because the parents were unable to do so: drug addiction, mental instability, economic circumstance being the main reasons. Learning about new situations was an energising experience.

Other features appeared in national magazines. But was this the life for me? You must constantly think up new ideas , pitch them to editors, follow up if there is no response. Moreover, you are working at home alone. I missed the camaraderie of co-workers and the back and forth discussion of new ideas.

I wasn't ready to say GoodbyeThe freelance life was not lifting my spirits. Truthfully, I was not only alone but lonely. My lifelong friends were back in Washington. I did catch up with some of my husband’s old English friends. But the women had spouses, and their own social network. Family? My sister worked full time and travelled often. My daughter was at work all day and busy with husband and new child. My son and his wife, too, were caught up in full-time careers. My brother had moved to the country.

I did make new friends. Other widows and women who had always lived a single life. But how many museums or films or concerts can you go to. How to fill the days?

Charity work? Fortunately, my pension, social security and a portion of my husband's pension left me free from worrying about a paid job. I thought at first I would investigate the Parkinson’s Society. But I had some negative associations and feelings. Too many bad memories. I needed to be involved in something I felt more positive about.

My local Carers Network had been helpful when David was alive, providing advice and a few hours a week of respite. My new flat was now in another area, so I offered my services to a similar charity, the Kensington and Chelsea Carers. Anything, I said. Stuffing envelopes?

In time, I was asked to help write the newsletter, and to plan the Carers Forums, bi-monthly meetings for carers and the social services to meet and explore mutual concerns. I now serve on the KC Carers quality performance committee and have just been elected a Trustee. It is very good to know you can contribute meaningfully and that the organisation values your contributions.

Satisfying too, to realise that the knowledge and skills you gained over the years - ones that you may not recognise yourself - are recognised by others and put to good use.

I maintained contact with Helen Franks and, when was launched, she asked me to become a regular contributor. Writing, though anxiety-ridden, is one of the most effective ways for me to get out of myself, to block the surges of mild depression that can overtake me. I miss my spouse . I miss the easy communication, the shared experiences of forty-two years, I miss the love, the physical closeness.

After two years, I felt I was ready to seek out male companionship. I took the lead and invited a friend to the theatre. Although the evening was pleasant there was no follow up. I met a very attractive bachelor at a university fund-raising dinner but discovered when we met for drinks he had a very satisfactory partner of twenty years.

“Tell everyone you know that you are now ready to meet someone,” said friends and family. “Join groups with similar interests.” The obvious truth became vividly apparent. There are very few unattached men in their late 60s or 70s available, and if they are, they are more interested in much younger women.

I joined a dating service. If you would like to read about this interesting but fruitless experience, look in the laterlife interest archives for “The Dating Game when you’re over 65,” articles one and two.

Now I am relaxed enough to leave it to chance. If someone appears, fine. I am not actively looking. I have a different kind of love: four young grandchildren whose beautiful faces and sweet voices bring me great surges of emotion. I have new friends to go out with and a renewed closeness with my sister.

And there is a wonderful group of men and women I work with and lunch with twice a week. With much humour and good-natured banter we discuss politics of the day, the theatre, holidays and more. These are the volunteers who help at REACH, another charity I devote time to.

A journey through griefThis came about through yet another of those opportunities you could not plan for. A fellow student from Helen’s class, and now too an occasional writer for laterlife (Olive Braman), was working at REACH, whose remit is to recruit volunteers with career skills and place them with voluntary organisations. She asked if I was interested in joining them in their central office. I was. And I have enjoyed being part of this charity ever since.

Yes, I am still alone. But not lonely. I have found a new life.

Where to find a new later life:

  • Local adult education centres – look for daytime classes where you are more likely to meet those of similar age group

  • Join a local walking group, or painting group or gardening club

  • Try classes at a private or council-run gym for 50 plus. Again daytime classes attract older people

  • Join your local Residents Association or Neighbourhood Watch committee

  • Do voluntary work - see in local library for list of organisation. You might want to help children reading in primary school, or visit old people, or help in a hospital

  • Try an assertiveness training class (at adult education centre) if you feel shy about mixing with new people

  • If you are bereaved, try CRUSE or other local bereavement group: see in your local telephone directory or ask at the library for addresses




laterlife interest

The above article is part of the features section of called laterlife interest. laterlife interest contains a variety of articles of interest for visitors to written by a number of experienced and new journalists.

It includes both one off articles and also regular columns of a more specialist nature such as healthwise, reports from the REACH files, and a beauty section called looking good in later life.

Also don't forget to take a look at our regular IT question and answer section called YoucandoIT by IT trainer and author Jackie Sherman.

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