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Gap Year for Grown-Ups

Gap Year:  Definition

gap year is defined as a break between high school and college with the aim of promoting maturity and perhaps the ability to absorb the benefits of higher education.

(My personal experience tells me gap year or not, maturity, at least for millennials, does not really happen until around 30).

Well Toto, we’re not in high school any longer by a long shot — but people facing retirement or semi retirement are increasingly taking gap years to consider a new direction for their lives. For mid-career and older workers who have the financial means and job flexibility (a big if), gap experiences can help inform them about what they want to do in retirement. 

A New York Times article featured Gastroenterologist Dr. Dennis Sinar who took a break from his practice and professorial duties and apprenticed at a stonemasonry in Alaska learning to create stone facings for houses. Thereafter he traveled to Romania to work with a team of archeologists restoring a castle.  Dr. Sinar said his retirement has been shaped by his gap experiences.

“Before this I thought of myself as a left brain person, but now I’m much more right-brained”  — Dr. Sinar.  

A hobby writing fiction has blossomed and he has published two collections of short stories. “I never would have thought of making that kind of a stretch before.” And that is the key word: stretch. To introduce yourself to opportunities and avenues you never knew you might enjoy. We have spent so much of our lives in service to an employer, our children, our parents, friends, even volunteer boards, leaving very little time to explore creative ventures that might be self-fulfilling. And not all of these ventures are prohibitively expensive.

Sixty-three year old Kathy Thomas says paid or subsidized jobs have kept down the cost of her gap experiences.  She has worked at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, volunteered for six weeks at a home for abused girls in South Africa, attended a week-long writing retreat in North Carolina, and tended fields at an organic farm in Scotland. She has received room and board at all of these locations, cutting the cost of such adventures exponentially. Worried about early mortality since many family members had not lived past 69, she was eager to try on new experiences while she was able.

“Ms. Thomas is giving herself the gift of time, a truly precious commodity especially as we age.”

Tired of the administrative aspects of doctoring, 74 year old Oncologist John Siebel wanted to retire but treat patients part time. He became a temp covering for vacationing oncologists in locations where he wanted to travel. He is booked for short stints in remote parts of Alaska, California, and Idaho near wilderness areas. Weekdays he sees patients, weekends he explores mountains and wilderness areas.

Dr. Siebel is blurring the lines between work and leisure, re-defining the traditional ideas about the nature of retirement.

A growing number of older Americans are experimenting with the concept of a self-designed retirement. Even if we don’t have Dr. Siebel’s skill set, we have our own set of important skills, which can enable us to have work flexibility. So, whatever you want to call it- gap year, semi retirement, work flexibility, or a self-designed retirement, this is not your Mom and Dad’s version of retirement. Make it your own. Envision a new life going forward. To help in that quest, take this personality quizdesigned for the 60+ demographic to assess your own needs, values and motivations at this point in your life.  You might just surprise yourself.


Liz Kitchens is a writer and blogger.  Her blog, Be Brave. Lose the Beige, reaches out to Lady Boomers, women of the Baby Boomer generation. Liz also blogs for Growing Bolder and Vibrant Nation, two sites devoted to aging issues. Liz conducts workshops on the health benefits of creativity and is an ambassador for the Creative Caregiving Initiative sponsored by the NCCA, The National Center for Creative Aging. Liz founded the Jeremiah Project, an after school and summer creative arts program designed to foster self esteem and encourage creative thinking among at risk middle school aged students.

Check out Liz’s blog, Be Brave. Lose The Beige, and follow her on Facebook.

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