Watercolor artist Suzanne Shaffer doesn’t just teach others how to reimagine themselves in retirement — she’s living those same changes herself. A retired clinical art therapist and practicing art educator, Shaffer recently added “author” to the list of her identities. Her book, Conscious Creative Retirement: Eight Essential Keys to Maximize Your Next Life Chapter, offers advice and hands-on creative exercises for grappling with the changes that come with aging.
Creativity is a big concept for Shaffer and her co-author, Patty Van Dyke, but it’s often misunderstood. “Creativity has nothing to do with artistic ability,” Shaffer explains. Even if someone has never drawn, painted or played a musical instrument, she continues, “We didn’t get to this age without using creativity in our lives.” As folks consider what’s next after building a career or raising a family, she says, they need to draw on their inherent creativity to move forward in ways that promote mental and physical health, avoid depression and maintain healthy relationships.
Even as she paints a picture of the many possibilities for self-expression and fulfillment in retirement, however, Shaffer doesn’t gloss over the more difficult aspects of aging. The three most common anxieties surrounding aging are health, money and the fear of running out of time, she says. Many people also struggle with the shift away from accumulating possessions and markers of success. “We’re downsizing our houses; we’re letting go of things we feel we don’t need anymore. Oftentimes that letting-go process can be one of grief and despair,” she says. But letting go of things that are no longer needed “allows room for something new to come in,” Shaffer advises.
How do people get started to creatively envision those new possibilities? Shaffer mentions a retirement standby: travel. But, she hastens to add, you don’t have to go far to get all the benefits of being in a new environment. Even visiting a part of your own town that you’ve never explored before can do the trick. The key is to stay open to the experience, without passing judgment. “That’s an easy, inexpensive way to start: Put yourself in situations where you are open to new ideas, new suggestions and new things coming to you that you can think about in a different way,” she says.
In addition to teaching watercolor painting, writing, and maintaining an active website and blog, Shaffer also speaks to groups and offers workshops. One thing she often sees among those she meets is a compulsion to fill every second of the day with activities. “Many people in retirement are busy, busy, busy all of the time,” she reveals. “What we ask people to do with this book is to slow down, which is so contrary to our society and all this noise that we have going on around us.”
Retirement offers a chance to redefine one’s path forward, Shaffer says. “You are comfortable enough in your own skin that it’s OK to follow your own star. A lot of people get to a point where they think, ‘You know, I’ve been there and I’ve done that and I don’t want to do that anymore. And now I feel confident and comfortable enough to do [what I want], and I don’t care what other people think.'”
“We are writing the new rules for retirement every day,” Shaffer concludes. “The sooner you can start thinking about how you want to spend the next chapter of your life, the better.”