An ‘orphan’ at 65: setting new priorities after the loss of your parents


My 85-year-old father died of a heart attack while playing poker in a South Florida casino. He and my mother had been inseparable for almost 70 years. Mom, who suffered from Parkinson’s and other ailments, could not withstand life without Dad. She folded into herself and was lost to me before she died three years later.

With both my parents gone, although I was 65 years old, I felt like an orphan. Swirling in the vortex of grief, I lost my balance, safety, and security. Moreover, I was slammed with the realization that there was no longer a cushion between my parent’s generation and mine.

I was next in line. 

The reality of our mortality that sets in after the death of our parents causes us to look at life through a magnifying glass. From the practical to the inspirational, our priorities change. It’s time to put our affairs in order, clarify how we’d like to be remembered, maximize our own life expectancy, stop putting off dreams and goals, and question old messages and motivations.

Put your affairs in order

If you have not organized your financial, medical, and end-of-life matters do it—now. Consult with appropriate legal professionals for advice on wills, trusts, powers of attorney, medical directives, and the like. Plan funeral arrangements. Ensure that loved ones can access your safe-deposit box and locate your passwords and any other pertinent information. Consider gifting some of your beloved personal items like jewelry and artwork to beneficiaries while you’re here to witness their enjoyment of them. 

Likewise, seek expert advice on financial matters. Asset allocation, Social Security and pension withdrawals, retirement and part-time work options, career changes, distribution percentages, expenses, tax implications, and other financial affairs warrant planning and discussion in order to meet your present and future goals. Time is of the essence.

How do you want to be remembered?

What will those you leave behind think about when their memories turn to you? Are they aware of your values? Have you adequately conveyed, by word or deed, your concerns, insights, and interests? Have you put your emotional affairs in order? Is there anything left unsaid to family members? Did you apologize for the time you missed your daughter’s soccer game and she scored the winning goal? Have you told your siblings how much you love them? If not—now is the time.

Consider writing a legacy letter or recording a message for your progeny. Explain to your grandson why you are worried about the environment. Volunteer at a school and convey your belief in the importance of education. Take your granddaughter to a museum so she sees firsthand why you value art. Establish a fund, charitable trust, or foundation to continue contributing to your favorite causes.  

We want to be remembered for our unique qualities like generosity, integrity, warmth, silly joke telling, or a talent for baking a moist apple cake. It’s not too late to create new memories and resurrect past experiences. Bring that cake to the next family dinner or share an old joke that brings a grandchild giggles. Organize and label scrapbooks and mementos, like your son’s handmade Mother’s Day card. Digitize pictures and videos. 

Maximize your life expectancy

If you’re not already eating healthy, decreasing stress, and increasing activity, what are you waiting for? Are you up-to-date on doctor visits, cholesterol, blood pressure and other recommended screenings? 

By now we all know that lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables are better for us than processed foods. Your physician can help you devise the right eating plan for your particular needs.

Choose one or more of the innumerable resources for exercise and stress reduction—videos, a gym membership, personal training, fitness classes, or sports leagues. You may prefer meditation, solitary walks and workouts over social activities like tennis, pickleball, and golf. Select activities that suit your personality and lifestyle—ones that you enjoy and can commit to. 

It’s now, or maybe never

Do you have a bucket list? If not, this simple exercise may help spark ideas: If you knew for certain you had 10 years to live, name 30 things you would like to do. Put the list away, wait at least a day and then ask yourself, If I were on my deathbed, what 30 things would I regret not having done? Now take out both lists and circle where they match up. If riding in a convertible made both lists, it goes on your bucket list.

In making your list be mindful of practicality. I’d love to climb Mt. Everest but do not have the knees or stamina. Likewise, I cannot afford to sign up for the space shuttle. There is no need for exotic adventures or extreme challenges, baking a tender beef wellington, or reading some of the classics are both bucket list endeavors.

Not everyone wants or needs a bucket list, but when there is more time in our past than our future, we must still examine how we spend it. It may be helpful to break down the hours of your typical week. How much of your time is spent working, learning, engaging in hobbies, interacting with nature, or enhancing your spirituality? How many hours are you bored and just passing the time? Are you comfortable with the distribution? Lifestyle allocation is as important as asset allocation! 

Question old messages and motivations

Do you tell yourself that you must be productive? Do you still demand perfection in everything, most of all yourself? Are you focused on the judgments and expectations of others? Are you still trying to please?

Enough. You are now the matriarch or patriarch of your family. There is nothing left to prove. There are no grades or report cards—no one gets an “A” in aging. 

Once you’ve established these new priorities it’s time to live in the moment, with gratitude, and curiosity. And whenever it’s within your reach, remember to embrace the joy.

Laura Black is a retired attorney and award-winning business woman turned author and speaker. Her latest book is the memoir, “Climbing Down the Ladder: A Journey to a Different Kind of Happy.”




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