I was pleased to attend the "Seventh Annual International Conference on Positive Aging", hosted by the Institute for the Ages, and the wonderful dinner that featured National Public Radio’s Ina Jaffe. Ina’s presentation and the short-and-sweet fireside chat inspired me to think about how my father reinvented himself at retirement, and again as he transitioned to life in an assisted living facility. Following the close of WWII my father Mac was discharged from the U.S. Coast Guard and came to Florida, where he entered the building construction trade, building beach cottages and commercial buildings for 30 years. Having worked his way up from carpenter to supervisor to superintendent, his highest and best use had become his ability to correctly estimate jobs – valuable work – but it took him out of the field and into an office, which wasn’t where he wanted to be.
In his early 50’s Mac decided a life change was in order, so he rented a commercial space on US 301 in Newtown, and shifted from construction to building canoes and other small boats. Over the next 30 years he would build over 300 vessels. Through a partnership with Woodenboat Magazine, he began a workshop classroom where he taught hundreds of people how to build their own canoes. Mac had found a completely new career for himself, shifting his construction skills (and tools) to boatbuilding. The transition was a wonderful one for him and opened many doors that would not have been available had he remained in the construction field. He lived by the motto “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood” – a mantra that was carved into the face of one of his wooden tool cabinets – and one that spoke to his enjoyment of the “second half” of his working life.
Fast forward to health problems, time spent in the hospital and rehab, and finally life at a local assisted living facility, for many the end of the line for their life’s passions. But not Mac. At the age of 80, he couldn’t just sit there all day and read, or look out the window. And he had no use for TV. About to give in to depression, one day he asked me to bring him some of his old ship model tools, and one special set of boat plans and some wood – cut real thin. He was incubating another transition – and it was to be a successful one!
During his final years on planet Earth, Mac spent the better part of each day constructing model ships – over one hundred and fifty of them! His assisted living bedroom became his new boat-shop. Fortunately, the management forgave the sawdust and encouraged his activity. He entered models in the County Fair and won first prize. He sold models to visiting friends so he could buy more plans and supplies. He gave models away to anyone who expressed an interest. He even had a one-man-show of his models – “Mac Day” – a special event that attracted more people to the facility than any other event they could remember. For Mac – the waning years and the life changes could not keep him from his interests, his passion and his own way of life. Like many others he found a way to age with dignity by exploring new possibilities, and spent the final years of his life immersed in his ageless passion. Never slowing down, on the morning of his last day Mac laid the keel of yet another miniature ship - bringing his life’s work to a close on a high note and welcoming the beginning of another transition.