I recently escaped from a retirement community, and not a moment too soon. Don’t worry, I wasn’t an inmate – uh, resident. I was only a slave – um, employee.
I wish it hadn’t even come to that, that I had made better choices that would have kept me from this experience, one of many. But I peacefully accept it’s part of the path I took, it contained the lessons I needed to learn, and I could even see the divine at work there, too.
Still, I’m glad it’s over. A retirement community is a very special kind of hell. Maybe not to everyone – many people are kept comfortably there. Many people are steadily employed there. Needs are met. There are connections to be made and fun to be had, too. Beauty and magic can be found everywhere, if you are willing to look for it.
But for those of us who imagine life for ourselves, it’s scary. In fact, in this place where yesterday is the same as today, and today is the same as tomorrow, it becomes glaringly obvious that this isn’t really life. It’s just biding time until time is up. This observation was reflected in a few of the residents’ sentiments I’d overhear while doing my work quietly:
“This place is a prison.”
“Guess it’s time to eat again.”
I didn’t outwardly acknowledge the pain of their statements, or even that I heard them if they weren’t talking to me, but inside I felt their pain and I agreed with them. Their days did not seem to have any real purpose or meaning, but revolved around eating and entertainment/activities. In between these timed events, many people just stayed in their rooms all day, sitting in front of the TV. Some had difficulty breathing, were sick to the point of hospitalization, or upset over some drama. One woman, very kind and sweet when she smiled, always struck me in particular as her resting face was with her mouth gaping open, as if frozen in horror.
As if she couldn’t believe she was here – in this body, in this place. What had she come to?
Don’t get me wrong – the staff was definitely doing their best to provide a good time for the residents. The facilities were clean and maintained, the décor upscale. The caregivers were cheerful and helpful. I met no one who didn’t truly care. But the nagging question in my mind daily was:
What’s the point of this again?
I knew why I was there, ultimately: I had to pay rent. That’s probably why a lot of people are there. And we have hearts of service, and it’s obvious the residents need others to care for them.
But maybe the agape mouth of woman in the hall was reflecting my own sentiments. Looking at the bigger picture: how did we get here? And is this really it for us?
The Ghost of Christmas to Come
One morning a few coworkers were talking about watching “A Christmas Story” on TV last night, which was an eerie sync with my own recent thoughts about the place. To me in particular, this setting seemed like a vision warning of what my future would be if I did not change my course now.
Although, as an aside, I don’t know how realistic it is that I’d ever end up living in one of these places, simply because I can’t afford it. The cost of living there is sky-high. I don’t think anyone who works in a menial hourly wage position as I did would ever actually end up being on the receiving end of the care there. So I wonder what would happen to us. (After writing this, I had a dream that we – the workers – lived in concentration camps. So, basically a lower budget version of this place).
I also wonder about the lives the residents had before they came to live here. And I’ve concluded that during their younger years, their lives were most likely just as devoid of purpose then as they are now. They revolved around eating and entertainment (not health foods or exercise). And instead of TV, they filled the time in between with a job.
What was the job? Was it their purpose in life? A job is something that seems to take up the bulk of the day, even though it’s really only a third. But since another third of the day is spent sleeping, the time spent at a job is significant. Plus, it’s what most people wake up to do first thing – it’s the priority, for at least eight hours a day, for at least five days a week, for at least forty years or so.
But is it their purpose?
And now that they no longer have their job, due to retirement, do they also no longer have their purpose?
I think many people do perceive it this way, even if unconsciously, and lack of purpose becomes the tone their lives take on.
And it’s very depressing.
But time marches on, and now there seems to be a generation of purposeless people, but conveniently tucked away out of sight from the rest of the world. Now it’s common for grandparents to be in a “home”. They are well cared for, true. But they’re vaguely unhappy, none of them quite sure why. There are no real complaints to be made about the home or care. The problem is actually rooted in the social system itself. People are meant to have purpose; we are depressed and unhappy when we don’t have it.
Of course, we could simply shift perspective and say that they do have purpose. Throughout the ages, our elders have been the ones we have turned to for knowledge, wisdom, and deep inner strength.
Yet they seem to have lost this function. Nowadays, instead we tend to get bad jokes, forgetfulness, and demanding, toddler-like behavior. Families are more disconnected, and it generally makes much more sense to put grandparents into a retirement home than for them to live with their children and grandchildren in the family home. As a result, there is less interaction between them and more disconnection. Younger generations don’t really relate to the older, and it feels like hard work mentally and emotionally just to be around them. Forget living together; even visits are few. I noticed during the month I worked there, aside from an actual toddler, I never saw anyone under the age of 40 visiting, even during the Christmas party, which was stocked with free craft beer, wine, and gourmet foods.
This compounds the sense of purposelessness. If grandparents can do nothing else, they can at least love their grandchildren (if that’s a family value). But where are the grandchildren?
Society has changed, adapted, but maybe not for the better. The elderly used to be an integral part of the family and greater community. Now they have been removed from the family home (which itself has changed and really no longer exists in the mainstream as such, either), removed from their traditional roles, and removed from what they are.
They are not simply aged anymore. They are diseased. Their bodies literally don’t hold them up, and they require walkers or wheelchairs – almost none of them can move on their own without one, and even then it’s at a snail’s pace. They’re all on medications and very susceptible to contagious illnesses. They are irritable and indecisive. They can barely see or hear. Their hair is falling out and skin loose, scabbing and spotted, their posture bent, their fingers fumbling over their food. It makes a ghastly picture.
Most require caregivers, which is a full-time job. Another reason why modern families opt for the retirement home – it takes more time and effort to take care of a degenerating person than working adults can afford. I also think many people are relieved to not have to see a daily reminder of their own future, what is waiting for them at the end of the rat race, or else they might just stop moving toward it and seriously rethink their lives.
Realizing Life Purpose
Our life outcomes are more than just the result of the inertia of our past choices. We can bring in a higher consciousness now to make changes to the trajectory, toward the future we want to see.
I had to stop at the Salvation Army thrift shop to pick up long-sleeved shirts for work, as the short sleeves of the given uniform weren’t working for me in winter, even if indoors. When I went into the fitting room, a book was on the chair. Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. It seemed to have an auric presence of its own, just waiting patiently as if it had been expecting me, or whoever needed it. Another divine sync.
That’s one sign you’re waking up: you do what works for you, and your outer reality responds in kind.
I know that I have a higher purpose in life, but I haven’t been living it. That’s what the retirement community was showing me: the continuation of an entire collective of people who lived all their lives devoid of purpose, merely cycling through work, eat, entertainment, sleep, repeat.
Our purpose in life is not merely to get through it; no one is getting out of this world alive. There’s more to life than just survival, making it to and through another day, eating whatever we can get, escaping into entertainment to temporarily distract us from the nagging knowing deep within that this isn’t really it.
Since we know better, that means we can do better. Much better. We can bring purpose back into our days.
If we were living with purpose every day of our lives – what would the course of our lives look like? How would our hours, our days be filled? What would our work be? What would old age be?
Some might scoff at that and say we don’t have a purpose, to just enjoy materialism (while ironically also being empty inside). Others derive value only from doing hard work. But does that mean those who don’t or can’t work have no value? And does it also mean that those who do work have value just because they are working – even if the work they are doing is negative or destructive in some way?
I always felt there was much more to my life than that, even if I have been blocked in expressing it. As a young child I was very interested in abstract but meaningful ideas such as peace and healing the world. I had a lot of spirit and passion, I was outgoing and independent, and I felt an inner resonance knowing that my generation would be the one to really change things and right all the wrongs in this world. But as a teenager, I became deeply depressed, and this was all thwarted. I felt forced to conform to the outer world and became very angry and dysfunctional, unable to deal with that reality. I suffered from major lack of self expression, disempowerment and loss of sense of purpose.
And though I have been working to heal myself of this over the past ten years, at times I still struggle with it, and still fall back into the pattern of just surviving and not living my purpose. That was clearly what the retirement home was showing me; this pattern is what led me there.
“When did I stop existing?” I asked myself at work one day, feeling like I had never mattered less. I have so much potential and so many dreams. How could my life have come to this?
I know I am not meant to be in a retirement home. Not as a resident, nor as an employee. But that’s where the choices I have been making will lead me to. I was given a window into that world as an employee. That’s what I had to do for not honoring my life’s true purpose, and that’s where I will end up as a resident if I don’t learn and put my purpose first.
What is my purpose? What is yours? It’s something we know deep within, and it has to be intuited, brought into the outside world. For most of us, it’s dormant, something we first put on hold long ago when we started going to school, going to work, doing what we were told, and trying to be like everyone else. It became buried under fear of being ourselves and pressure to conform to the outer world. So it can take some work and time to dig it out again.
But nature will help with that. The first day I started at the retirement community, there was an auspicious owl perched right outside the window, all day. I’ve never seen one so close, in person, and I saw it each time I walked by, and everyone was marveling over it. I knew it was a messenger, and I was thankful.
This owl was telling me about my purpose, and that this job would be temporary and was also a catalyst toward my purpose, so it did serve a purpose in that sense. (Plus, I got rent paid). But enough of this. Clarifying and living my purpose is going to be my real work in the new year. This is going to be my challenge. And it is my challenge for you, too.
So that each day is not just another day, but a new day. And each new year, we make a new world.