Smack in the middle of blintzes and cheesecake, it hit Henny Rosenthal of Boro Park that this might be the last Shavuos where she, her husband, and their three children would all be sitting together enjoying the holiday seudah. Their youngest daughter would soon leave for a year of seminary in Israel, their married daughter had bought a house in another state, and their son was transferring out of town for his medical residency. The realization of her new status as an empty nester overwhelmed Henny as she abruptly left the table crying. Confused by Henny’s sudden emotional outburst, her family remained seated at the table.
Later, the kids joked about the incident and assured her that they would still be a unified family and that nothing would change, but Henny wondered if they really would remain close and in touch. Her husband laughed it off and attributed her moment of hysteria to hormones, but for Henny it was so much deeper than that.
“I wasn’t just losing my kids, I was losing myself,” she told me in a phone interview. With playdates long gone, no more school functions to attend, and the end of accompanying the kids to various appointments, Henny felt she was losing her identity and purpose.
According to AARP, 30 percent of the 78 million baby boomers in America are about to be empty nesters. In the next month, about 17 million undergrads will be starting college, leaving millions of parents to cope with letting go of the kids they have loved for almost two decades. For many, this transition can be traumatic.
What is Empty Nest Syndrome?
When the proverbial nest empties, parents may feel a host of overwhelming feelings, including depression, dysphoria, anxiety, and loss of purpose. They may also worry about the welfare of their adult children and experience guilt for not adequality adequately preparing them for real life. Even parents who still have minors at home can get a taste of this now, during the summer months, when their kids are in sleep away camp. This will be just a preview for what is to come in the not too distant future.
There’s a name for those symptoms: empty nest syndrome.
Although not recognized as a clinical disorder, Psychology Today defines empty nest syndrome as “ a transitional period in life that highlights loneliness and loss. Parents want to encourage their children to grow into independent adults. However, the experience is often bittersweet or emotionally challenging.”
Today’s mental health professionals are leaning toward calling it post parental syndrome as they feel that it is more gender neutral and politically correct. Studies on the empty nest period started in the 1950’s-60’s, and became more popular in the 1970’s. The syndrome is said to have been linked to our increasing longevity and fertility advancements which have caused women to have fewer children and children later in life, which all results in a longer period of time for the average couple to reside by themselves after their children have gone. Urbanization is also to blame for the syndrome as it fosters isolation and loosened family ties. Parents living in rural areas reported less cases of ENS.
All parents are susceptible to empty nest syndrome, but some factors can create a predisposition to it such as those that who are low income, lower level of education, those in unhappy marriages, widows, retirees, or anyone dealing with stressful life circumstances such as a move, illness or death.
Understandably, women, specifically stay at home mothers and caregivers, are especially prone to ENS. Fathers tend to react differently, where instead of depression, they experience feelings of guilt and remorse for the quantity and quality of time spent with their children while they were home.
Harriet and Morris* live in Riverdale, and when their youngest child, Hadassah, chose to move out of the neighborhood, they did not take it well. According to their child, their anger spiraled and morphed into a severe depression that ultimately created a rift in their relationship.
“They took it as a personal rejection that I didn’t want to live in the same area. They told me I was abandoning them in their old age and that I was being selfish,” said Hadassah. “My brother moved to Queens years before and didn’t elicit the same reaction, but I think now that they are empty nesters, it hit them like a ton of bricks.”
After their daughter’s move, the Greens became increasingly isolated. They started neglecting their health and personal appearance. Their daughter says that they seem devoid of joy in their lives.
“I wish they would have sought help in dealing with this new phase of their lives,” says Hadassah. “Clearly, this is about more than my zip code.”
Orthodox Jewish families may not be as vulnerable to empty nest syndrome as their religious lifestyle puts in place various safety nets which can shield them. For instance, Jewish life does not slow down with age. The same commandments and obligations apply to a both a 20-year-old and a 70-year old. Men are expected to pray multiple times a day, preferably in a synagogue with others. This encourages and maintains companionship and stability.
On the one hand, the Torah is against the concept of an empty nest since we are supposed to continue having children as long as possible (Yevamos 62b based on Koheles 11:6),” says Rabbi Gil Student, who frequently writes on Jewish issues and is the publisher and editor-in-chief of TorahMusings.com. “Even when all of our children are grown, we still retain responsibility for the proper formal and informal education of our grandchildren. However, given the reality of many communities today, empty nesters with free time and disposable income should use their resources to learn Torah, perform chessed and support charities.”
Religion can be a great stabilizing force in the midst of a major transition. The rituals, the holidays, the predictability of some part of your life can be an anchor when all else seems to be in flux. Shabbat comes the same day every week, regardless of what else you’ve got in your calendar. And the religious community can be a great social support for anyone going through any kind of stress in their lives,” says Rafi Bilek, a family therapist in the Baltimore Jewish community and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center, as well as frumcounselor.com.
Orthodox families tend to be large, which often makes the transition to empty nest more gradual.
Do a Google search for “empty nesters and synagogues” and you will yield many results of religious centers that appeal to seniors in this phase of their lives. Some shuls have special programs just for empty nesters. Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida, for example, has a page on its website which specifically invites empty nest seniors to join the congregation. The page, titled Empty Nesters, states, “Are your children away at school? Perhaps they are married and are no longer a part of your daily lives! Then become a part of an awesome group of fun-loving adults who just want to have a great time with friends and at the same time meet new people! This past year we had a delicious Friday night dinner with a thought-provoking speaker, and a fun-filled Purim Seudah with an outstanding DJ and a scrumptious meal. Most of our events will be taking place from December to April so that we can accommodate all of the Snowbirds who join us in the winter!
There are also synagogues, (mostly Conservative and Reform) which are able to stay open despite plummeting membership due to the arrival of empty nesters who are now experiencing a resurgence of religious interest in their lives.
Empty Nest, Full Life
Being an empty nester doesn’t mean that your life is complete. This stage offers a chance to focus on areas you may have neglected when you were consumed with childrearing and work. Now is the time to travel, if you have the means, or explore your own neighborhood. Take up a hobby, enroll in a class, learn a new skill, language or how to play a music instrument, or do acts of chessed. Being an empty nester means that you have the time to help out others outside of your nest.
“It’s a time to soar, largely unfettered by obligations at home, to more fully appreciate and take the time to mindfully enjoy life’s infinite gifts,” says Brachah Goetz, Harvard-educated author of many articles and books in the field of mental health, coordinator of the Jewish Big Brother Big Sister Program, and an empty nester herself.
Experts agree that the key to easing into this stage is communication, goals, and setting boundaries with your adult kids. You don’t want to overly consumed and overbearing, so although you may feel compelled to check up on your kids often to make sure that they’re awake for school or work, eating and sleeping properly, and generally living their best life, it’s important not to overdo it.
“Create a communication schedule, either with your kids or just for yourself. Whether that is going out for brunch once a week or calling them at the end of every day to say goodnight and catch up, figure out a system that works for everyone, “says Adina Mahalli, a certified mental health expert and family care professional.
Mahalli also recommends setting new long-term goals for yourself which will give you direction and newfound purpose and will force you to commit to things each week that are just for you.
Finding a New Nest
What do you do when your nest has become too big for just the two of you? Well, for many seniors, this means selling their homes so they can be closer to their adult kids and grandkids, downsizing, or moving to a senior-friendly community. Empty nesters are doing away with one-family homes and opting for trendy apartments or co-ops. People aged 55 and older make up more than 20 percent of the Manhattan’s population, and they’re on the verge of a major growth spurt. While the elderly population increases across the city, according to statistics from the Department of City Planning.
For the Jewish community, the trend seems to be a migration to Toms River, Lakewood, Monsey, Jackson, Five Towns and Israel. Karen Befhar a real estate broker and owner of The Befhar Team, knows Brooklyn very well and has observed some interesting changes in her senior clients’ home purchases. She noticed that within the last year many young first-time homebuyers chose to move out of Brooklyn. Now that the homeowners’ children have moved away and no longer come back into town as often, the parents are forced to travel back and forth every time they want to visit and are growing more and more inconvenienced by the situation. “I have seen a few empty nesters choosing to stay put, taking in some boarders to make use of their extra space or choosing to sub lease areas of their home, “ Befhar says, “but majority choose to move, not wishing to deal with all the clutter, the accumulation of graduation and children’s pictures and camp paraphernalia.”
Befhar recommends that empty nesters sit down and crunch the numbers, talk with their children, and plan out their financial future based on the lifestyle changes they want to make and the community they would like to move to. “Make sure the homes you are looking to move into not only fit your financial criteria but also the needs you might have in 10, 20 or 30 years,” she advises.
For years, you have devoted your life to raising your children and supporting the family. Now is a great time to rekindle bonds with people you may have neglected. Track down that childhood friend, send an email to your college buddies, or reach out to old neighbors. The most important relationship that could use a boost is the one with your spouse. The term “grey divorce” was coined in 2004. Many seniors find that they have grown apart and do not share similar interests now that the kids are not the focal point of their daily lives.
“Before, you may have been busy working all day, making dinner for your children, and only seeing your partner at night. Now, as an empty nester, you’re both retired, so you’re now spending all day with each other again. It’s normal for some couples to get depressed about no longer going to work every day. Some couples can fall deeper in love during this time because they have more time to spend together and can travel. However, some couples realize that they fell out of love and end up separating around the time of empty nesting,” says Katie Ziskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Transitioning to the empty nest phase of life is often a bigger change, practically and emotionally, than many people expect. Managing this transition is easier when you are ready for it. This means talking about it with your spouse and thinking about how things might be different and how you’d like to react to them. Bilek recommends that you ask your spouse how his or her schedule will change and how he or she would like to use the extra free time.
“You’ll also be finding yourself alone with your spouse again after all those years,” Bilek says. “How will your relationship be different? How will it stay the same? As with any change, preparation can make the difference between a rocky transition and a smooth move to the new reality.”
Goetz, for one, enjoys this time she has with her husband and says her marriage is closer now than ever. “I have time to appreciate my husband and we enjoy being together,” she says.
IS IT REALLY ABOUT THE KIDS?
According to Jacob Brown, a therapist who specializes in treating older adults, people tend to think that the problem’s been caused by the kids leaving home. In reality, the kids’ exodus is often just the most visible event in a series of age-related changes. These changes may include greater awareness of the fact that they’re aging, physical decline or illness, or caregiving for a spouse or parent. The winding-down of a career might lead to economic disruption. They may also experience loss of family or friends.
When the kids move out, we tend to think that we must be busy with activities. But for many, this strategy proves to be a poor substitute for filling the void of being an empty nester.
Brown says that seniors may experience a “crisis of meaning” because many of the elements – such as work – that have given life meaning are slowing being stripped away. He suggests that we search inward to find greater meaning. Many problems can be helped by taking the time to reflect on who we are today and what is really important to in our lives. By bringing meaning into our lives, we shift from loss and replace it with an awareness that something has changed, and we need to work toward acceptance. Once we have accepted this new stage of our lives, a whole new world of possibilities opens up to us.