I wrote my first bucket list when I was in my 20s. And it was really more of a wish list.
I wanted to visit all 50 states. All seven continents. All seven Wonders of the World.
I had my whole life ahead of me, and these were things that could basically be accomplished and checked off one by one. I didn't have a big emotional attachment to them but they felt like places I should see. Plus, they would give me bragging rights.
I spent my 30s raising children and had no time to add to the bucket list. I was too busy actually using that bucket to clean my perpetually dirty house and for the kids to throw up in.
By my 40s, I started to rethink the idea of the bucket list. I no longer cared about seeing every state or even every continent. I just wanted to travel anywhere with my family and show my kids there's a great big world out there. I wanted them to learn about different cultures, meet new people and realize that, deep down, we all have the same needs and desires and that we have to take care of each other.
Once I turned 50, the bucket list took on a whole new meaning for me. The kids were grown, our beloved dogs were gone and my husband retired. Although we now had the luxury of time, it also felt like time was running out. We had to get moving on the items that were important to us.
We booked a trip to Africa, spending a fortune to go on daily game drives and interact with wildlife. I was so moved by everything I saw and experienced, I pretty much sobbed my way through the trip. It was worth every penny and taught me what a true bucket list trip should be.
So, when Buick offered to sponsor a bucket list trip for me now, at the age of 55, I put a great deal of thought into where I wanted to go, realizing what a gift this was and that, ultimately, it was much more about what I wanted to do. I've learned it's the experience, not the location, that's most valuable.
My husband and I decided to volunteer at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee -- a place that had been popping up regularly in conversations over the years -- and then spend a few days in Nashville, listening to music and eating our way through the city.
It was life-changing.
After listening to the heartbreaking stories of these elephants' histories, it was so rewarding to help paint, clean up and maintain the vast space they are lucky to call home -- with an occasional elephant checking out our progress. As I've gotten older, I can assure you that nothing feels as good as giving back. I now feel personally invested in what happens to these magnificent creatures, and have become addicted to the Ele-cam.
I highly recommend this experience to everyone, and hope you will follow the 13 beauties on Facebook.
During the trip, we met people who would never have come into our lives otherwise. We had eye-opening discussions, ate dishes we don't have in San Diego (hello, chicken and dumplings), drove through breathtaking scenery seemingly in the middle of nowhere and got to experience a Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry and the wonder that is Opryland.
We saw the best (the warm, friendly people, y'all) and worst (the slave pit on the porch of Loretta Lynn's ranch as a reminder of the past) of the South. Hopefully, like the elephants, we will never forget either one.
As I approach 60, I'm no longer throwing around the words "bucket list" loosely. Although I will continue to travel as much as possible, I understand that not every trip is or has to be a bucket list trip. Those are the ones that are so special, they stir something deep inside. They're the ones you really plan for, the ones you dream about. The ones that, when you actually get to go on them, change you in some profound way.
So, although I've only visited 30 states, four continents and, honestly, don't even know what the seven Wonders of the World are, I am so grateful for the two bucket list trips that have enriched my life in more ways than I ever anticipated.
And, as I try to imagine what a third one would look like, all I can do is send it out into the universe and say, "Encore."
Sites like the Aging Network's Volunteer Collaborative and Idealist can be a great starting point for gathering ideas.
Especially at this time of year, canvassing, organizing, and inspiring others to get involved can be a great way to get fired up about local and national issues.
Senior Corp, a program of the United States government founded during the Kennedy administration, "connects today's 55+ with the people and organizations that need them most," encompassing a Foster Grandparent program, a Senior Companion program, and a wide volunteer network.
Programs such as Volunteers In Medicine and Score.org (a mentorship program for small businesses) allow retirees from the for-profit sector to use the professional skills and knowledge they have acquired to give back.
Environmental preservation is something post50s from all walks of life and across political lines can get behind--and the "grey and green" movement has some unique benefits for the older generation, such as improved physical health from getting outdoors, and greater payoff in terms of mental well-being than other types of volunteer work.
Of course "your place" can easily be found in your own backyard (see the previous five slides)--but if you've got an itch to see more of the world, there are plenty of international volunteer opportunities targeted for post50s.
...or through the Red Cross, mentor or tutor kids in your community... The possibilities are endless!
Follow Lois Alter Mark on Twitter: www.twitter.com/loisaltermark