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As You Age, Is It Time to Rethink Your Bucket List?

For National Bucket List Day, here’s how to take stock of your life goals

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Robert Samuel Hanson

Maria Leonard Olsen wants to visit all the countries in the world. Sixty-seven down … quite a few to go. Olsen, podcaster and author of 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life, started jotting down her bucket list on her phone’s notes app when she turned 50, daring herself to try 50 new things in that decade. Now, at 61, she’s working on a book with the same premise: 60 after 60.

Olsen says bucket lists shouldn’t be static; if she no longer has the ability or the desire to do something, off the list it goes. “I would add to it and take away from it as I had new ideas from either talking to people, reading about things, experiencing life in general,” Olsen says.

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While you’re spring-cleaning your home and garden, you might want to see whether your bucket list could use a little refreshing too. April 24 is National Bucket List Day, and here are tips from experts on revising your life goals.

Accept that a changing bucket list is normal

Your life is made up of many parts — family, work, learning, to name a few — and likely so is your bucket list. According to a 2021 YouGov survey, most bucket lists include at least some of the following: travel, personal goals, life milestones, financial goals and daring or adventurous activities.

While the categories might remain generally the same, what fills them up may change as your life changes, says Katharine Esty, who wrote Eightysomethings: A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness.

“I think what is appropriate at some point, we outgrow. People, as they age, outgrow wanting to do adventures and travel,” says Esty, 89, who lives in a retirement community and says many of her peers have given up travel.

What sounded like a dream five, 10 or 20 years ago may not any longer. The bucket list items should all be about what you want to do at your current point in life, not attempts to keep up with the Joneses, says Joel Wong, a psychology professor at Indiana University Bloomington. 

Having trouble deciding what should stay and go? Create a pros/cons list

Every bucket list item comes with a cost, and many times, it’s not just monetary. Be prepared for the issues you may encounter while achieving a goal, says Gary Small, professor and chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center and behavioral health physician in chief for Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey.

He suggests listing the pros and cons next to each item on your bucket list; adding this will help you decide whether a goal is worth it and, if so, how you want to approach it.

“So let’s say you always wanted to take this extravagant vacation, and you can afford it. That may be great, but maybe it’s going to keep you away from home for six months, and you have grandchildren, and you’re going to miss those six months’ time enjoying your grandchildren,” Small says.

Keep health in mind

Similarly, you might want to consider your health. Do you have ongoing or new conditions that might not fit with your bucket list item?

Keep the practical in mind, Small suggests. “You have to assess and figure out: Do you really need to bungee jump with the back issues you have?” he says. “Maybe you could watch a documentary in high-def of somebody bungee jumping and get a big thrill that way.”

Whether you need to be near your doctor is another important consideration, Small says. If a trip keeps you away from your medical provider, not being able to check in when you are supposed to could threaten your health.

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Don’t bucket list your way into debt

Wong says many popular bucket list items that immediately come to mind (travel, daring adventures) are typically expensive. Certainly, hiking the Himalayas or jumping off an airplane doesn’t come cheaply. A 2023 survey from online banker Ally Financial revealed that about 75 percent of people with bucket lists say finances are their top hurdle to achieving those goals.

“There’s this unspoken issue of class. Is this notion of a bucket list really for people who are more relatively wealthy?” Wong asks, adding that if you don’t have the means to have all these pricey adventures, it doesn’t mean you’re somehow less of a human being.

Instead, come up with more realistic items that won’t rack up debt, like Olsen did in her 50s.

Olsen (who was in Split, Croatia, when interviewed for this piece) has volunteered at schools in Nepal, ridden camels in Turkey and plans to travel to Poland and Malta. Before her nomading began, she says, some of her travel highlights included more budget-friendly options

She visited dozens of free museums and embassies in the Washington area where she lives and adopted the habit of walking everywhere. Olsen saw things she’d never noticed before — a garden labyrinth, an old church, an architecturally quirky home — all within her own surrounding neighborhood. The sights cost her nothing, “but they were, for me, travel,” she says, suggesting people should consider what they haven’t explored in their own vicinity.

Embrace simplicity

Bucket lists dwindle as you age, Esty says. “When we get to that point in life, where we do seek a simpler life … many people see that to get the full meaning of life is to understand and bring meaning to the very ordinary and small events in the day,” she says.

Sometimes, it’s about letting go of the idea of an adventure, travel or buying or attaining something you’ve always wanted, but often, it can be much more profound.

For Olsen, it’s letting go of her adult children and allowing them to make their own mistakes, she says. It’s letting go of negative mindsets, such as taking things personally and caring too much about what others think. An anti-bucket list, Olsen says, is about “dropping the rocks that hold you down.” 

Prioritize meaningful social interaction

Wong says that if you have a bucket list, the social and quality time category may be the most important one to flesh out and accomplish as you age.

Research shows it’s both necessary and good for you. One-third of adults 45 and older feel lonely, and about one-fourth of people 65 and older are considered socially isolated, according to a 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Loneliness and isolation are major risks for premature mortality.

Although there’s nothing wrong with individualistic and achievement-oriented goals (solo travel, skydiving, running a marathon, for example), Wong says, “many of the bucket list goals tend to not align that well with those social needs. I invite people, especially the older adults, to develop goals that are more socially oriented, which may not cost you a dime at all.

Consider omitting or shortening your travel plans to spend time with grandchildren, reconcile with a sibling, reconnect with a long lost friend or make a new friend.

Embrace milestones and achievements

Instead of reflecting on what you haven’t done, look carefully into all that you have done, Wong says. He suggests listing the big moments or milestones in your life. Try starting with five, but you may find it hard to limit yourself.

“Bucket lists are about desiring what you don’t have, whereas gratitude is desiring what you already have and appreciating it even more,” Wong says.

Esty says that as people age, they naturally move from achieving and striving to being, savoring and enjoying — but at different stages. As she approaches her 90th birthday in July, she says she has more or less ditched the bucket list and focuses on gratitude, particularly for being able to gather with her family to mark such anniversaries.

Whether you’re in a stage of life full of adventure and achieving, or simplifying your life and savoring the ordinary, Olsen says it’s important to do whatever fills your cup.

“Your life is happening right now. None of us knows when our final moment will be. So don’t waste whatever time you have left,” she says.

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