Regrets – the Bane of Senior Life

Commentary Healthy Lifestyle Lifestyle Impacts

“Regrets, I’ve had a few,” says the lyric of a popular song sung by Frank Sinatra, “But then again, too few to mention.”

But by the time we reach our ‘golden years,’ many of us do have regrets. And though we may not mention them, they become part of the fabric of our being. 

The Regrets of Seniors

Although everyone’s experiences are different, studies show that the regrets of seniors often break down to a few select areas.

Unnecessary Worry

Unnecessary worry makes the top list of many people. Too often, we spend large parts of our lives – even weeks or months – worrying about things that never come to pass. Singer Tom Petty put it this way: “Most things I worry about never happen anyway.”

  • My kid just shoplifted. What if he becomes a criminal?
  • My husband is sick. How will I go on if he dies?
  • I messed up on the job. What if I get fired?

In each of these situations, there is a reason to be concerned about the outcome. But all too often, we spend inordinate amounts of time and mental stress magnifying a slight possibility into a crisis. In every life, people make mistakes. They get sick. Their performance is less than they are normally capable of.

But also in every life, most of these situations work themselves out with little or no long term consequences. Even if things don’t work out as one hopes, that result won’t be changed by worrying. It is best to take life a day at a time and deal with whatever comes your way – but not until it does come your way.

Worry can also affect our lives in a far different way. If we worry about what might happen to us if we try something new – take a trip, explore a new relationship, look for a better job – fear can paralyze our actions. We may never experience wondrous and beneficial events simply because the fears of our minds hold us back.

Caring Too Much About What Others Think

Of course, we all want and need friends, and we want them to like us. But many of us waste our commitment to ourselves by trying to conform to what we see as others’ expectations of us. 

Certainly, at work, there are rules and norms which need to be followed. Likewise, we should observe certain proprieties in our personal life. But too often, we let the judgment of others dictate our happiness. And too often, our perception of what might happen to our friendships if we don’t bow to others’ expectations is not even valid.

Several years ago, I heard a comment which has remained with me:

“People spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.”

Care about others’ feelings and impressions about you, but don’t let it overwhelm your thinking and action.

Think of it this way. When you were 16, you were highly concerned about what those around you – your schoolmates – thought of you. You probably went to great lengths to be ‘part of the crowd.’ But how many of those people are still in your life? Better yet, how many of them were in your life when you were 36 – a mere 20 years later. The answer most people would give is, “very few.” So all that angst about what those currently around you might think is likely wasted time. And even those who stay in your circle change – just as you do. What mattered then seldom matters now, even if you’ve remained life long friends.

Too Little Quality Time with Loved Ones

I was guilty of this when my family was young. I had a job that I enjoyed but which required me to work shifts and sometimes long hours. Often, I came home tired and sometimes didn’t make time to be with my wife and kids. Even though they really wanted only a relatively small amount of attention, I wasn’t always ‘there’ for them. 

Like many grandparents who let work and other pursuits detract from ‘family time,’ I learned enough that I now devote time to my grandson every day. But it also reminds me every day that I regret not doing the same for my kids when they were young.

Not Being Open About Our Feelings

This goes hand in hand with spending quality time with loved ones. It is also very much the bane of many older men. We were raised with the mandate to maintain a ‘stiff upper lip’ – to withhold emotional expression. Men of my generation have seen marriages suffer and even end because they had trouble simply saying “I love you” to those close to them. 

My own father worked very hard to provide for his family. Yet, I knew he cared because he took the time to teach me how to do different things. More importantly, he taught me resourcefulness to figure out things on my own. But one thing was always missing – simple expressions of feelings. I never saw my father cry. And he only said the words “I love you” once to me – when he was 81 years old and two days from the end of his life. 

Yet even with that experience, not uncommon to those of my generation, we haven’t always been forthcoming with our feelings either. And most of us regret that now.

Not Traveling Enough

There is so much to see in the world. But often, we put it off until

  • we can afford it
  • the kids are grown
  • we are retired and “have the time”
  • we need new kitchen cabinets (or whatever)
My wife and I in front of the Milan Cathedral in Milan, Italy – 2016

When they become seniors, most people express huge regrets over not getting out and seeing the world. All too often, by the time we are retired, the kids are grown, we have a little more financial stability, and we don’t feel the need to replace some household item that works well enough, our health won’t permit us to ‘see the world.’

I’ve been fortunate to have visited sites in all the lower 48 states and several foreign countries. But I know I could have done more and regret that I didn’t. Fortunately for my wife and me, our health is good. We had a wonderful time in Europe a few years ago and plan to go back once the COVID pandemic has passed.

Setting Priorities

But I also look at others and admire their approach. My daughter and son-in-law are both public school teachers, so they don’t make a lot of money. But they live simply because they both love to travel. They and their two children have been to Europe, Central and South America, and the Middle East. Their son first visited Italy when he was three months old. Of course, he doesn’t remember that visit. Now, at age 12, he’s seen pictures and is ready to go back.

But as people now approaching middle age, they are an exception.

“I can’t afford to go to Europe.” Many people can’t, but you can take a drive to a neighboring state – or a neighboring city. And don’t just drive through on the interstate highway. Get out and actually visit the local site.

Be a tourist in your own city. What you discover might amaze you.

Wherever you travel, KelbyOne can help you get great photos to remember the adventure.

Not Taking Enough Career Chances

People of my generation were raised with the admonition to “get a good job and hang on to it.” This came from parents who had experienced the Great Depression – people who feared any possibility of returning to the destitution they had known as kids.

But following that admonition blindly deprived many of us of the opportunity to expand our professional horizons. The fear of failure – ingrained in us by well-meaning parents – kept us from ‘reaching for the brass ring.’ And the irony is that their parents didn’t ‘fail.’ They suffered because of global economic excesses far out of their control.

I’ve passed up several opportunities to move in a different direction in my lifetime. But in almost every situation, I chose the ‘safe’ path of staying with the familiar. I managed to reach a pinnacle of my profession, and from that, I gained the confidence to try several other avocations. But I was in my early 50s when that began. 

Experts tell us that older people are more likely to regret not making a career move than they are to have tried and had it not work out as well as they planned.

Related Article: Reinventing Yourself – The Key to Staying Young

But What to Do Now?

Photo Illustration by Brett Jordan

Obviously, we can’t go back and relive our lives. But if it’s not too late – a loved one has passed on, for example – we can try to make amends. The power of a simple but sincere “I’m sorry” can be amazing.

“Better late than never” is something to consider. Take that long-put-off trip to Fiji. Take a drive to someplace in the United States you’ve always talked about visiting. Fix a candlelight dinner for someone dear to you – the kind of dinner you fixed or took her out for when you were wooing her and have rarely done since. Pick up the phone and call that sibling or child you haven’t spoken to for months or years.

None of these will completely fix those mistakes in our lives – our regrets. And some regrets can no longer be ‘fixed.’ We just have to live with those.

Do any of these regrets resonate with you? What are other choices you’ve made that you now regret?

Tell us in the comments below.

Mike Worley

Mike is retired and lives in Louisville, KY, USA. He writes about lifestyle issues, particularly those affecting senior citizens. He also enjoys photography and works part-time as a college volleyball official.