Finding Fulfillment in the "Third Age"     


By Tom Gresham (Reprinted courtesy of Vermont Maturity Magazine)  

Dan and Sylvia Skea had been living in Las Vegas for 30 years when Dan decided to retire from his career as a jazz musician. Since Sylvia had already retired a few years before, the Skeas found themselves on the brink of something new and uncertain - a life without the customary rhythms and rotes of employment.

Sylvia said she and her husband soon decided that they wanted to take advantage of this change. "We knew we wanted to go somewhere else," Sylvia said. "We have family in Vermont and we decided that we had enough time left for another adventure."

So, the Skeas moved to Waterbury in Sept. 2002, buying a house based on recommendations relayed to them by their daughter, a Vermont resident. It was a dramatically new life, and it was just what the Skeas had been hoping to find.

"We are very, very happy," Sylvia said. "We don't want to ever leave. A lot of people thought we were crazy to move here at this point in our lives, but we didn't care. We were ready for a change and we have embraced it. We wanted to do something completely different. We're enjoying the slow, country life."

According to the Encyclopedia of Arda, a reference guide to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, “the Third Age began a little over four thousand years after the Rising of the Moon in the first year of the First Age. Of the Ages, it is the best known, as the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings took place in its later years.”

However, for others, the Third Age represents something less fanciful. For them, the Third Age signals that time late in life when one can finally achieve a long-sought fulfillment. It is a period when the pressures of career and family responsibility recede and a sense of individual self-awareness is heightened.   "The Third Age is when you're able to let go of some of the obligations and embrace the things you love," Sylvia said.

The term "Third Age" has become increasingly common in the U.S. in recent years, particularly since the publication of sociologist William Sadler's book, The Third Age, which trumpets the possibilities of life after 50.   Sadler points out that in 1900 the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 47. In 2000, the average life expectancy had increased to 77. The result Sadler says, is "a 30-year life bonus"

Melita DeBellis, a life, business and employee coach who serves as an associate of the Center for Third Age Leadership, a Sharon, Mass.-based organization, said the Third Age refers to people aged approximately 50 to 80. The First Age - childhood - is the age of preparation, while the Second Age - the 20s, 30s and 40s - is the age of achievement.

"With both the First and Second Age, the focus tends to be on outer directives," said DeBellis, who is based in South Burlington. "How we live our lives comes from outside ourselves. Society has certain expectations that we generally pay attention to.” However, in the Third Age, DeBellis said, "the directions come to us internally.  "There's no exact starting point either. It’s more the circumstances of life or an internal something that has happened.”

For instance, DeBellis said, a child’s departure for college can bring on a tendency to "start looking at different definitions of identity and fulfillment. Being a parent never goes away, but suddenly it's not as much at the forefront of who you are and what you do. The focus begins to become much broader in how we define ourselves." DeBellis said the result is a much more relaxed view of life and a newfound ability "to let go of these cultural expectations that are allowed to weigh us down."

Sylvia Skea agrees. "I feel that I have no social pressures to perform anymore," Sylvia said.. "I'm not saying I'm done or I'm perfect or I don't need work, but I just don't put pressure on myself to prove anything or perform anymore."

DeBellis points out that not all people between the ages of 50 and 80 experience something akin to the Skeas. She said some people will never enter a Third Age and will remain content anyway. “For some people, no change could be fulfilling to them,” DeBellis said. “Who am I to say that's not OK?   That's great.”   However, DeBellis said, for someone interested in embracing the tenets of the Third Age, there are two central guiding principles that need to be followed.

First DeBellis said, is striking a balance between mindful reflection and risk-taking. DeBellis said this means stopping and slowing down to consider one's life, but at the same time having the aggressiveness to move forward and make changes.

Second, she said, is developing a realistic optimism. This means understanding the challenge that lies ahead, but being confident enough to make the changes you want deep down.   "It's about having the hope and belief to follow your dreams,” DeBellis said. “You still of course, have to know the reality, but not to let it pull you down.”

DeBellis said the Skeas are living, breathing examples of people who have clearly taken advantage of their Third Age. Sylvia said she continues to work part-time, designing and making costume jewelry, while her husband plays in various jazz bands.

“We've continued doing the things we love,” Sylvia explained. "We've just gotten rid of having to get up at 6 a.m. to do them.” Sylvia said possibly the most rewarding period of the Third Age so far has been when she and Dan cleaned out their home in Las Vegas in preparation for their move. "We had stored up 30 years worth of stuff and it was liberating to give most of it away,” Sylvia said. "It felt wonderful. It felt like this great weight had been lifted. The responsibility of owning it all was gone. We still enjoy the things that we loved most, but we don't miss what we gave away. It feels good to let go of things.”