I was plugging away inside my 6:30 a.m. workout whenever a friend walked by and joked, “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be retired?” 

It was true: At 68, I had been two years into my retirement. “I come here to relax!” I responded. My morning workout is restorative, a time for me to get energized for that busy day ahead.

I began my early-morning fitness routine within my 40s, when my two children were growing older and I was spending less time playing around after them. It solved the problem expend surplus energy. But when I’d established the habit, I realized that being fit allowed me to do this much more outside the gym. 

Six days a week, I still get up and go exercise. The benefits of that commitment let me live a fulfilling life, free of the limitations that plague a lot of older adults. Taking care of my own health has made my dream of an active retirement possible.

Redefining Retirement

As my 65th birthday approached, I began to think more seriously about retiring. I'd worked full time for more than 4 decades — 30 of those at a for-profit company before transitioning into nonprofit work. That organization was changing, though, and it seemed like a good time for me to consider something new.

I’d been preparing for retirement by saving cash, but I hadn’t given much considered to what my life would look like after I left the workforce. 

A stereotypical retirement, with days spent playing golf or bridge, seemed like the antithesis of who I had been. I’d spent my very existence raising my children and concentrating on work. I was afraid of being bored, or slowing down and becoming stagnant, or losing my hard-won health and vitality. I’d seen people retire and get sick or grow disheartened from a lack of purpose. 

I didn’t want that for myself. As i wanted a change, I didn’t want to do less — I wanted to do more. 

I usually have felt driven toward service, and that i pursued that passion around I could while balancing career and family obligations. But in my nonprofit management job, I often felt I interacted more with paper compared to people. I wanted more meaningful human connections and direct ways to make a difference. In the back of my mind, I figured about how I’d like to make use of a variety of organizations to spread just as much goodwill as I could. 

The concept of combining my service mindset with new experiences appealed to me. That’s when I finally started to envision myself in my new phase of life.

“What Do You Do?”

At age 66, I left the workforce. The next day, I began reaching out to people I knew who were involved with volunteer work, and I setup some meetings with organizations that interested me.

One of my first meetings was having a pastor. He reminded me that certain of the first questions people ask once they meet someone new is “Where do you turn?” I certainly didn’t want to be caught unable to answer. 

I knew I didn’t have to define myself by a particular position or organization, but it was challenging to make that shift. The pastor impressed upon me that individuals don’t actually want to know what you need to do, they want to know how you feel by what you do.

Sure enough, when someone inquired about this question a few weeks later, I had been a little rattled. But because of that meeting, I had my elevator pitch ready. “I’m retired,” I responded with a smile, “and I’m getting involved in a variety of volunteer organizations.”

I began assisting to teach kindergartners to read, which is still my personal favorite volunteer job because I get to share my love of books. Plus, there is nothing more rewarding than entering a classroom and being embraced by a roomful of children.

Once I settled in to the rhythm of going to the school twice a week, I began looking for ways to fill my other free days. I acquired one day a week at an adult-education program, where I help immigrants with reading and writing. I really like learning about different cultures and hearing stories from people I otherwise never might have met. 

I also provide monthly articles to 3 nonprofits: One promotes children’s literacy, another offers mentoring for high school students, and a third encourages socializing for that elderly. I enjoy having the chance to use my writing skills, which will keep my mind sharp and fills me with creative energy.

When I imagined what volunteer work I would do in retirement, I never expected I would regularly visit a prison. But every month, I consult woman who is incarcerated in a nearby correctional facility. My role will be a good listener and reinforce her goals for the next step in her life, like working on her GED. She’d never had a visitor before I started mentoring her; she calls me her link to the outside world. 

Fit to Serve

This lifestyle of service works for me because I’ve carefully blended it with my very own passions. I’m always challenging myself to become creative in finding new methods to serve others. 

When I’m not officially volunteering, I’m usually “scattering kindness,” which could involve anything from showing appreciation to police officers to leaving coins around a wishing well for kids to find. These spontaneous gestures also keep me active, allowing me to explore my community; I easily meet my daily 10,000-step goal.

While my commitment to fitness has kept me physically healthy, the joy I get from volunteer service keeps me mentally and emotionally fit. I met a lady at a shelter who believed to me, “You didn’t just produce food, you gave me dignity.” These are the moments that sustain me.  

I’ve been able to balance my desire for service with my family obligations. My husband still works, but we also enjoy volunteering together. Once each month, we serve meals in a homeless shelter. We also host bingo nights at another shelter, which is a fun night out for us. This time together is one more method to build on our relationship in the end “pay it forward” out of gratitude for the blessed life we’ve lived. 

I’d like to continue doing this work for the rest of my entire life. My mom is 93 years old and still lives on her own, and so i believe I have many good volunteering a long time. Her longevity motivates me to stay fit so I can make the most of each year I get.

Tell Us Your Story!

Have a transformational healthy-living tale of your own? Share it with us at ELmag.com/myturnaround.

Karen's Top 3 Success Stories

  1. Get outside your safe place. “I've been able to create new relationships with individuals I otherwise never would have met,” Karen explains. “It's really expanded my world.”
  2. Be creative. Think beyond typical ways to serve and try things you haven't done before. “Volunteer work never needs to be a long-term commitment unless you believe body is just right,” she says.
  3. Get social. Karen recommends networking to find volunteer oppor-tunities, just as you would for a career move. Organizations that help make these connections include www.volunteermatch.org and www.allforgood.org.