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Member Spotlight: Carolyn Walter on Transitions

May 22, 2016

Member Spotlight    Carolyn Walter
TTN Philadelphia Chapter member, Carolyn Walter, PhD, LCSW, is a professor emerita at Widener University's Center for Social Work Education.  She has authored several books, including "Grief and Loss Across the Lifespan:  A Biopsychosocial Perspective", as well as numerous journal articles.  Since retiring, Carolyn has been actively involved in the Positive Aging movement via the Life Planning Network, Community Education and serving on the TTN Peer Advisory Committee.  In her spare time, she enjoys the company of her nine grandchildren, and "dabbling!"  
Here are a few perspectives from Carolyn as she reflects on her own transitions from full-time work to retirement and relocating into Center City.   This conversation took place on May 5, 2016 between Carolyn Walter (CW) and Marsha Yankelev (MY).
MY:   You've gone through several life transitions in the past few years.  What are some insights you've personally gleaned?
CW:     Transitions at our age include so many different life experiences.  It's important to know that grief and loss are not limited just to death.  Whether its divorce, home/ relocation, job, or illness, every transition involves some kind of loss.   Transitions also include the opportunity for potential growth, if you work on it with intention, dig deeper and make meaning from it.
Like any learning experience, new transitions involve lots of fits and starts, a little bit of turmoil, not a lot of time to figure things out.  Every month, year seems different.  It is not a linear process.
About a year and a half ago my husband and I moved from the suburbs to Center City and I needed to reshape this phase of my life.  I went through loss - letting go of Delaware County, the house where my kids grew up, my first husband.  I was caught off-guard, surprised by deep feelings of grief.  I did not anticipate the degree of loss and learning that leaving this part of my life would bring.  The first year was tough, very disorienting.  
Just know with any transition there will be anxiety, feeling uprooted.  Let yourself go with it and don't be too frightened.  You need to take that first year and go through all the seasons to feel more rooted.  But I also found this was a great time to build new memories and traditions and an exciting time to be alive.  
It's really important to have a support system.  When I retired and during my relocation, I was grateful to have TTN to find needed support, a safe environment for building friendships with other women going through similar transitions. We need support - and not just from our spouse, partner, long-time friends.  We need to build new friendships with like-minded women who want to go on this journey together. Sometimes, in order to move forward, you may need to leave old friends who may not get what you're currently experiencing.  
MY:  What about women who say they don't know what to do next?

CW:  Search within yourself.  Think about times when you were so immersed in something that you totally lost track of time.  For me I rediscovered singing and writing.   I sought out groups/ organizations to explore these things, reconnected with a writer’s group, etc.  It doesn’t have to be one thing, it can be several.  Go deep and recapture that feeling of being in the moment. 

I met women in TTN with diverse backgrounds and skills and I allowed myself to explore new interests. I also traveled.  Take a break and ask yourself 'What am I going to do differently?'  Change your perspective, explore a new culture, which spurs you on to do new things.  

I also re-discovered how much I love to teach.  I forgot how much I loved this and needed to figure out a different place to do it. I’m now involved in teaching in Community Education (ie. Ollie, Penn State Community Education, etc.)  vs. the academic side.

Just as finding a good support system is key to getting through a transition, it is equally important to spend time with yourself. Be willing to be alone.  Strike the right balance between community support and self-introspection.  You need both to move forward and figure out what’s meaningful for you.  Transitions never finish; it's a journey.

MY:  What else can you share about challenges women face handling transitions?

CW:   As I said before, it’s not a linear process.  There will be fits and starts.  Not having support and not being comfortable by yourself are the big challenges.  No one has the answer for you.

When I started my education and career, my path was clearly defined and prescribed.  I got my MSW, loved being in the field, then motherhood, PhD, became an author, tenured full professor.    I had constant feedback on my career’s trajectory and performance, got promotions, engaged in the academic community. Then I retired.  I’m not getting feedback from others.  Not getting validation.  I’m lonely and there is the loneliness of not knowing.  There is no formula, no defined path and it’s all up to me. That first year was tough, but one year after retiring, I looked back and saw so much progress.

My message is to trust the process.  It’s all about trusting the journey, knowing there will be phases and that you’re not alone.  Find new ways to use the skills you have today and be willing to dabble and explore.  Allow white space in your life too, for introspection.  

It’s an exciting time to be alive!

Carolyn can be reached via email at  
Click here to link to Carolyn's website.