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Relocating and reinventing can still be a big adventure when you’re a senior

May Benatar says older people relocating need to be holistic in recreating life in their new community. (Courtesy of May Benatar)
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It’s been seven and a half years now since my husband and I moved to the Washington area — enough time to have perspective on the benefits and the costs of moving away from the community that had been our home for 30 years and starting over.

I have come to realize that there is something confining about being known for decades by pretty much the same cohort, the same friends and acquaintances. I have learned that we adapt to the lens through which we are perceived. Capacities that were not evident to that particular cohort tended to remain undeveloped.

Or so it was with me.

In a new community I found myself growing in directions I had not considered before — all in the seventh and eighth decades of my life. I had been unaware of how our village sculpts us.

Entering this stage of life presents assorted upheavals, which can be highly emotional for many people: giving up a career you’ve had for years, opting to work part time or taking on something new; becoming an empty-nester and determining whether to stay in the place you’ve called home for decades or downsizing to another residence; living with aches and pains and limitations; desiring to reinvent yourself but not certain how.

That was me. Through it all, I learned some coping mechanisms that helped me as I transitioned from Montclair, N.J., to Silver Spring, Md.

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About 10 years ago, I realized that my life was changing, becoming somewhat less satisfying. My closest friendships had evaporated: one death, one friend-divorce. The group of professional peers that had been meeting and supporting each other for 20 years had disbanded. My psychotherapy practice, while still robust, was not engaging me in the same way that it had for decades. The house that I thought I could never leave was feeling like a burden less than a treasured limb. We had restored that battered Victorian room by room, but it was still a bit of a pain and expensive to maintain. New Jersey’s high property taxes are legendary.

We had arrived at a pause.

When my oldest daughter bought her first home in Washington several years ago, we were invited to her real estate agent’s home for hors d’oeuvres. The agent lived in a condo in the heart of Adams Morgan, a very hip neighborhood by my standards, in a secluded building recently renovated. The apartment was sleek and modern, everything convenient and streamlined. Bookstores and coffee shops and restaurants and boutiques and bars, galleries and museums all nearby. Even the zoo! I could walk to almost everything I might need. I loved it! The energy of a city without the noise and dirt. I loved the buzz and bustle of that city neighborhood. Maybe we could even afford it.

My decades-long dream of living in New York City was no longer viable, as it had become unaffordable for even a comfortably retired couple. At that point, we were a few years away from the prospect of retirement, but it was an invigorating idea — something that had far more appeal to me than Florida or Arizona. The germ of an idea for the next chapter of our lives was born.

Within two years, my husband was offered a tempting retirement package, and we had two grandbabies living in the District. We found ourselves at that “pause.” We made the decision to move.

Many, many bumps awaited us in that narrow passage, transitioning from New Jersey to Washington. We listed our house just as the housing market was crashing. We languished for nine months before we were able to sell our beloved manse. The upside of that drawn-out process was that our house was no longer soaked with memories — it had become just a bit of real estate that we needed to sell.

But every place experienced a housing bust, right? Not Washington — or at least it seemed that way. To summarize a long and heartbreaking process, we were not able to find a suitable home in the cool neighborhood nor anywhere else in the city. Our real estate agent told us that what we could afford was basically a “starter home” in D.C. A starter home! After 35 years of homeownership, that was a piercing blow.

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Eventually we came to our senses and bought a lovely home just outside the city in the “urbanizing” suburb of Silver Spring near public transportation, libraries, supermarkets and banks. We loved the house and were shocked to find that in a place less than 20 years old, power strips were unnecessary to access electricity, pretty much everything worked and the neighbors were kind. We were ready to trade the charm of an old house (“charming” is what sloping floors are called in that leafy suburb from which we moved) for the convenience of newish construction.

The next shock was finding that I had unprecedented levels of anxiety associated with not working, with seeing myself as retired. If I was not a practicing psychotherapist, who was I? The role of grandparent was not quite capacious or challenging enough to keep my restless spirit and mind occupied. I needed to work. With everything else changing — house, town, neighbors, community — I needed to be grounded. Work grounded me.

Alas, in order to work I had to do the steep climb of getting credentialed in Maryland. All the training and experience and reputation I had accrued over almost four decades counted little in my new state. I felt a little like an immigrant, highly trained in my own country, needing to start over in my new one. But it was doable, and I fought my anxiety to a draw and did it. I started a part-time practice and got myself back in the game.

For many months after moving into our new home, I blessed the house every day. It was full of light, the windows large and numerous. The New Jersey manse, while lovely, had been pretty dark surrounded by old trees and facing north. I wasn’t cold all the time in our new home. The heating system in a drafty Victorian built in 1897 will always work overtime to keep the bite of winter at bay. Our now adult children recall that as children their father had convinced them it was impossible to turn the heat up in winter, that’s just how the thermostat worked. In the summer, a recently installed cooling system never quite did the trick, either. In our new home, we could be toasty in winter and comfortable in the swampy humidity of summer. And we could adjust the thermostat!

We didn’t need to do much work in our new home — it was well kept and even nicely decorated. Most of the old furniture fit well into the new rooms. We did some painting but left several rooms untouched, and we liked the bold colors that the previous owners had chosen. We did decide to do a new kitchen but kept the updates to a minimum.

The floor plan of our new house offered us things sorely missed in the New Jersey manse. An open floor plan and family room make it easier to entertain and enjoy the expanding brood of grandchildren. The cul-de-sac on which we now live is an easy walk to bustling downtown but safe from traffic for those same young grandchildren.

After the house-honeymoon, I found myself missing the garden I had cultivated more than 30 years’ time in New Jersey, not sure I had the energy or the physical capacity to create another garden in my much smaller, but still demanding, new yard. I missed the large, partially shaded deck back in New Jersey.

The Metro is nearby, but often we have had to drive and navigating in a new area in the first few years after the move was difficult. I think if Google Maps did not yet exist, I might have become a hermit. It had been a long time since I had had to tread new paths and find my way around an unknown city and its byways.

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But the biggest challenge, by far, has been finding community — still a work in progress. In New Jersey, so much of our adult lives, our lives as parents, fit itself around a synagogue community that grew up with us. We joined the synagogue a year after its creation and were embedded within it for 30 years. We had and have many friends from that community. The comfort of a community in which you have been a member for decades affords ease and warmth. But it also can be confining. One’s story is an established one — this is who you are, will forever be in that cohort. In a new place, there is the opportunity to stretch and be new in some ways. I have sought out what I think of as “single use” or mini-communities.

• I signed up and have continued with a writing class. Overcoming embarrassment and fear in that new context, I found latent creative juices flowing and now dare think of myself as a writer, not just someone who writes occasionally. I published a book of essays this year — surprising even myself.

• I formed a meditation group among psychotherapists in Silver Spring that strengthened my own meditation practice; it has also formed the core of a friendship group.

• I offered my services as a volunteer meditation guide at a cancer support center when I had absolutely no idea if I had the skill to really pull that off. It has become one of the most joyful and affirming activities in my schedule for six years now. And for me, it has the feel of mini-community, as well.

• A professional study group has supported new learning for me and provides the company and comfort of like-minded individuals pursuing similar goals.

The losses are real: The beauty of the homes and landscape of our old town, lifelong friends who knew us when we were young parents and saw us through that lens, rather than the geezer lens of today. I cannot count on bumping into people I have known for many years every time I go to the supermarket or the gym. My beloved yoga teacher who became such a true friend declined to move with us! The vibrancy and comfort of the synagogue that sustained us over three decades has not been easy to replace.

But the truly freeing experience has been that with all the losses I am not caught in the same stories of who I am and what I can do that held me to an identity that might have been too confining, too tight. Moving forward has both enabled and required expanding the narrative of myself.

May Benatar is a psychotherapist in Silver Spring, Md., and author of the memoir “Emma and Her Selves: a Memoir of Treatment and a Therapist’s Self-Discovery.”