The Relevance of Staying Relevant
BY JUDITH AND BOB WRIGHT
One of the big questions many of us face in our GRAND years is, “How do I stay relevant as I get older?”
We ponder this deeply as we watch our grandkids scroll through their phones, as we stumble through strained relationships with our adult children, or even as we consider cutting back to half-time in our careers.
We sometimes feel like the world is moving faster and faster away from us – out of our grasp. So how do we continue to feel relevant and interconnected in our world as we get older?
Shifting Our Focus From Career to Connection
Many of us have built strong identities and developed confidence through our work. We know our careers bring us a relevant way to contribute to the world around us—offering us social connections, intellectual stimulation, and opportunities for personal growth. If our career was homemaker and raising the kids, then the shift is forced on us. It becomes intimidating to even consider retiring or scaling back in our work life. Yet, we may feel our relevance at our job is diminishing, especially as technology evolves. We live in a culture where youth is highly-valued, and age and experience are less attractive career qualifications.
In truth, however, the ability to stay relevant, growth-minded, and to continue to evolve is well within our grasp, both at work and in our interpersonal relationships. Age is truly just a number and it’s never too late to grow into your next most relevant, most radiant self.
Recently, we met with a client in his early 70s. He was toying with the idea of retiring, but like many older adults, he was nervous about what he was going to do if he actually retired or even cut his work back to half-time.
We discussed that no matter which career path he chose, it was important to focus on learning, growing, and building the social connections in his life. This included his relationships with his children and grandchildren. The secret to relevance – whether we’re retired, still working, or even if we’ve never had a traditional career – is to focus on our growth and on developing more meaningful connections with others.
In our next session, he reported that he really connected with two of his grandchildren. One was a brilliant, but socially awkward 10-year-old with a passion for history and analysis. The other was a mentally and emotionally challenged 20-year-old cancer survivor. In both cases, these grandkids were easier to relate to than his other grandchildren because they clearly needed him to embrace a distinct role as “helper.”
In fact, this is all too common with many grandparents. We relate to our grandkids as the coach, support, or even the financier, but we fail to relate to them and build connections outside that role. For our kids and grandkids who don’t require as much assistance, the balance of staying relevant and building relationships is even trickier.
As grandparents, we hold an iconic place where we’re symbolically important. We stand in a privileged position as the nurturing and caring person free of traditional parenting duties and responsibilities. However, once again, with this freedom comes the threat of potential irrelevance, especially as kids become adults living their own lives.
At some point every grandparent has asked themselves, is my help even wanted by my kids and grandkids?
The hard-yet-simple truth is that our grandparent “helper” role has changed. We’re not in charge of rescuing or even advising our adult children and grandchildren. In fact, many times well-intentioned help is disempowering for adult children and grandchildren.
Instead, it’s important to ask ourselves what our kids and grandkids really want. At the end of the day, their desires are the same human desires we all share: to be known, to be appreciated, and to be affirmed.
If your grandkids are starting to study history (as was the case with our client’s grandson), how do you relate to them? How do you follow them as they learn and grow? How do you keep yourself abreast of new technologies and studies?
Earning the Right to Engage
You have a purpose in the lives of your grandchildren: to provide continuity, wisdom, and care. Yet, this role is an active role. We can’t rest on our laurels and expect to exist as a fountain of evergreen knowledge unless we’re truly learning and growing ourselves. To relate to young students, we must embrace our own studies as students of life. We must earn the right to engage with them.
When we engage in discussions with our grandkids, we should ask intelligent questions about how they’re thinking, what they’re doing, and topics relevant to them. How are their relationships? What do they think of their studies at school? And yes, how are they thinking about topics like drugs and sex? If your grandkids don’t want to talk to you about these topics, it’s important to explore why they wouldn’t want to—are you too uptight? Judgmental? Opinionated? Are you threatened by the conversation?
Remember, a conversation is relevant to your grandkids as they think about their lives, not as you think about their lives. Can you earn the right to bring what you know into the discussions you hold with your grandchildren?
This concept of “earning the right” may sound strange, but when we step back and put ourselves in their shoes, it becomes clear: giving unsolicited advice to someone when you don’t know them is absurd.
Staying relevant to our grandkids means it’s important to live our own interesting, full, and vibrant lives—outside of parent and grandparenthood. Has it occurred to you that your grandkids might find your life interesting? Yes, in some cases they may not care, but many times they will want to know. They may want to know what’s current in your life (outside of your visits with them). What are YOU doing that’s interesting? How are you stretching your life?
You’re a curious beast to them in their lives. Are you a beast worthy of their curiosity?
Staying Relevant in Your Own Life
There are many older adults who may not have the relationship they desire with their children and grandchildren, or may be estranged or alienated from their family for any number of reasons – or may not have grandchildren at all. So how do we maintain relevance in the world outside of the traditional parent/grandparent roles we play?
At the end of the day, the answer is the same whether your social circle includes children and family, or just your friends. It’s important you discover meaning and purpose in your own life. The point is to be fulfilled and satisfied in your life as yourself…not only as a parent or grandparent.
If we’ve experienced loneliness, isolation, and alienation, we may consider ourselves a victim of the situation. Unfortunately, viewing alienation as an affliction and viewing ourselves as being shut out and the victim is just an excuse we may use to avoid finding our true purpose and meaning.
Studies today show that the impact of isolation on health and well being is huge. Social connections are very important and aren’t limited to family. Connecting with neighbors, coworkers, and friends is more important to our health than taking a vitamin or eating healthy. It’s truly part of longevity and vibrance in our senior years.
In reality, it’s within each of us to live a life of greater purpose and meaning—to discover belonging and social integration. Yes, this means engaging with others and jumping into social situations. It may mean continuing to evolve and grow in our career. It may also mean doing volunteer work, sitting on a board, or joining a community group.
If you want to stay relevant, it’s important we remember relevancy is a choice. We can consciously choose to live a life where we’re growing, learning, and experiencing each moment. The more fulfilling our lives, the more relevance we will maintain throughout our later years. Rather than sitting back and letting life pass you by, stay engaged! If you find yourself sitting on the sidelines, it’s time to jump in!
Share with us how you are living purposeful relevance. For more on living a life of purpose and meaning, please visit us at www.wrightfoundation.org. We offer coaching, classes, networking, and learning opportunities to help you discover a fuller, more vibrant life at any age. Unlock your next, most radiant self!
ABOUT THE AUTHORS – BOB AND JUDITH WRIGHT
The Heart of the Fight: A Couples Guide to 15 Common Fights, What They Really Mean & How They Can Bring You Closer.Judith Wright and Dr. Bob Wright, are a husband/wife duo and Chicago-based relationship counselors. They are award-winning authors and trainers and have appeared on numerous TV and radio programs including ABC’s 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, the Today Show, the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Marie Claire, Better Homes and Gardens, and Vanity Fair. They are the co-authors of “The Heart of the Fight: A Couples Guide to 15 Common Fights, What They Really Mean & How They Can Bring You Closer.