As I’ve said before, more than once---not every October road is straight and smooth. And they do not always lead to happily-ever-after. No matter what our circumstances there will be potholes, speed bumps, and detours for us to negotiate.
You’ve seen the stories on the tube and read them in the newspaper. (Our generation still does that.) The news is bad and the numbers are worse. A growing portion of our October population is not financially prepared for anything like the story-book retirement that advertisers tell us we deserve. For too many of us the future is a bit bleak---or perhaps a lot bleak.
Think of it this way. For the less fortunate of our October friends, what lies in wait are possibilities they never expected or planned for. The fortunate among us may be heading off into the retirement sunset on the back of a smooth-riding pension pony. But for too many others those guaranteed pensions, high-yielding 401Ks, and real estate equities that always increased are last-year’s dream turned sour. Meanwhile, the publicly-funded safety net of social services they hope will tide them over---food stamps, rental subsidies, health care---is strained as never before. Even Social Security, the last resort for so many, is said to be more vulnerable than ever.
I suppose it is human nature---looking ahead to judge our outcomes. We continually measure ourselves against our own expectations. Are we winning or losing? “Winning” is, of course, a powerful motivator. Conversely, the realization that we might be “losing” is hard to accept. That is true at any age, but especially so in the late-life world of October.
Facing the harsh possibility of failure in something as crucial as retirement is hard enough. But what if you find yourself failing and the means to turn your situation around---to set things right, seem to be out of reach? That sense of helplessness can bring the strongest person up short, regardless of their age. Serious setbacks---be they health related, relational, financial, or psychological---are likely to reinforce the perception of having lost control. What worked in the past may no longer be effective. How can we learn new skills and change course so late in the game?
In the end, of course, the test is how we deal with those disappointments---the October realization that our future will be something less, perhaps a lot less, than we had hoped. On one hand we can step back, assess our situation, weigh the options, and create an action plan that includes the most promising ways to cope with our misfortune. Or.....at the other extreme, we can simply give up---turning away, refusing to accept the fact of it. Finally, if denial does not bring the desired relief, some will resort to outright escape, literally running away rather than face the hurtful truth.
Of course, for October couples the disappointment of falling short is a shared experience. Not surprisingly, when unexpected circumstances scuttle long-held dreams of how the future ought to be, it can produce serious strain on even the best of relationships. For some that perceived failure is a burden not easily shed---a source of guilt that is bound to have its way.
By now you might be asking what has led me to this dark side of October. As often happens I revisited those relational concerns---of a couple falling short---as I proofed my latest story, with its descriptive title - Breathing Underwater. After forty-six years of marriage the Camdens have encountered a late-life speed bump. Their problem is a financial one---an underwater mortgage, coupled with a private pension that vanished as fast as a former employer declared bankruptcy.
By then their question had become---how do they deal with that stressful reality when one of them is seeking for a way to survive, and the other wants only to run and hide from the truth?
It’s a hard thing, finding yourself underwater. “Breathing underwater” is even harder. Yet that simple necessity was about to become the mantra by which the Camdens’ new lives would be lived. Try as they might there was no escaping the truth of it. They must learn to view life through an “underwater” prism.
I’ll admit that I was drawn to the Camden’s situation, especially their differing ways of coping with their new reality. It seemed to me a story that ought to be told---a circumstance that happens too often these days. In the course of Breathing Underwater I followed them as they dealt with their personal challenges until, in due course, the ultimate question became---if and when they are able to surface for a breath of fresh air, will they still be together?