Empty nesters complete 'longevity gap year' travelling the world

Chris and Galina at the beach in Okinawa. (PA Real Life)
Chris and Galina Saye embarked on a grown-up gap year, pictured here on the beach in Okinawa. (PA Real Life)

When their kids leave home, many parents are left suffering from empty nest syndrome and wondering what comes next.

But one couple decided to use the opportunity to complete a "longevity gap year" in search of a new purpose.

When their youngest son left home in 2018, Chris and Galina Saye, both 52, feared the glue keeping them together may come unstuck.

So the couple, who are both avid travellers, decided to set off on a gap year of their own.

Watch: How to Deal With Empty Nest Syndrome

“Our kids had been such a big long term thing in our life, so what was it going to be now?" Chris explains.

“We had an existential moment when we discussed whether we had fulfilled our time together, after raising our children, and whether we should go our separate ways.

“But on this trip, we found our glue and our shared passion. It was incredible.

“We learned something different from each place.”

Read more: Son takes beloved mum on 18 month dream trip after Alzheimer’s diagnosis

Chris and Galina in the jungle in Costa Rica.
Chris and Galina in the jungle in Costa Rica. (PA Real Life)

The couple, who have lived everywhere from London to Russia and the USA, were based in Singapore when, in 2018, the youngest of their three children, Marcus, 21, left home for a gap year.

Determined to find a new purpose, the Sayes, decided to embark on their own gap year, visiting four of the world’s ‘Blue Zones,’ identified by National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner as the places where people live the longest and are healthiest.

The couple visited the Blue Zones of Okinawa, Sardinia, Ikaria and Costa Rica – living with families and working where possible, so they were properly immersed in their way of life.

Along the way, they also decided to try to uncover their ‘ikigai’, a Japanese concept referring to something that gives a person a sense of purpose.

“First we went to Okinawa, in search of our ikigai and stayed with several families on two different islands.

“We worked and were, in turn, given food and accommodation.

“One place was a dairy farm, so we were shovelling poo and feeding cows. Then we lived with the family, slept on the floor and ate dinner together.

“We decided to take a longevity path to give a purpose to our travels, as we want to live for a long time.

“We wanted to live with families in the places and pick their brains to see how they were managing it.”

Chris and Galina, with their children Natasha, Nicholas and Marcus. (PA Real Life)
Chris and Galina, with their children Natasha, Nicholas and Marcus. (PA Real Life)

Staying in Okinawa for six weeks in June and July 2018, where they found out about the ikigai, they then broke off for a trip to the USA, where their daughter was having a baby – born on August 1.

Chris’ elderly father Hugh also passed away while they were there, aged 95.

“So we got to see life and death in August 2018, with our grandson being born and my father dying at 95 – which seemed very poignant, as we were going around the world learning about longevity,” Chris says.

For six weeks in September and October, the couple stayed in Costa Rica, where they say they saw the importance of family values.

Chris explains: “It [the importance of family values] was brought home by seeing multi-generational families living together under one roof and gathering on the front porches of their houses on rocking chairs.

“They all sit there and talk. It was striking to see the family togetherness.

“Then we went to Sardinia where the biggest lesson I learned was the value of hard work.”

Read more: How to live longer: Have children and move to Orkney

Chris and Galina in Japan in Okinawa.
Chris and Galina Okinawa, Japan. (PA Real Life)

The couple stayed in Perdasdefogu, a town high up in the mountains, famous for holding the world record for family longevity.

They visited the aptly named Longevity Bar, still run by a man, who is well into his nineties.

“He was at church, but his son was running it that day," Chris explains.

“Without blinking, he told me the secret to his dad’s longevity was ‘hard work’. He still serves people in the bar at over 90.

“That to me was a clear indicator that I need to have something like that to keep doing until I drop.

“If you work for a company there’s a retirement age, but I want to work in something I actually want to do.”

Next came their stay on the Greek island of Ikaria, where food and community struck them as two important cornerstones for a long and successful life.

With their children now living independently, Chris and Galina feel ready for a new beginning.

Chris and Galina at the beach in Ikaria.
Chris and Galina at the beach in Ikaria. (PA Real Life)

During their travels – which also included visiting Moscow, Jordan, Singapore and Bali – they discovered their joint passion was for creating homes.

“We really enjoy creating homes together," Chris says.

“Right now, we have three different real estate projects we are involved in together – a house in Bali and two flats in Spain.

“It’s not our full-time job, but it’s something we can do together, talk about at dinner, or while we’re walking. It’s a common shared passion.

“We are probably going to sell them, so we can do another one.”

Watch: Hilarious photo shoot celebrates parents' empty nest

Chris has also written a book about the couple's gap year adventure, 'An Empty Nester’s Quest For The Holy Grail Of Life, Love & Longevity’.

“It’s been a little bit scary, as it’s rather personal, but one woman said to me recently, ‘The bit I liked the most was when you were arguing, as it was real,’" he says of the reaction to the book.

“I was honest about our journey - the good and bad.”

The pair are also planning to open a plant-based coffee shop together – although they have not decided where.

Read more: Look at all the lonely people: Why do over 80% of retirees feel isolated?

Out on the water in Sardinia.
The couple out on the water in Sardinia. (PA Real Life)

Speaking of the their decision to set off on their adventure Galina explains that the couple were keen to try something new.

“When our last son left home, we needed a huge change in our life to occupy our minds with something new, rather than looking at empty corners in empty rooms," she says.

“When Marcus left, we had been looking forward to being empty nesters, but when that moment came we were really shocked. We weren’t ready.

“We had to go through a separation process from something we’d never get back, as they’d never live with us again as children.

“So, we spent about six months thinking about it and then decided to go on our gap year."

For any other parents reaching a crossroads when their children leave, Galina has some important advice.

“When we decided to stick together, I was sure that love in terms of that trembling in the heart would come back and it did, as I was open for it to come back," she says.

“As long as the heart is open, the love is always there.”

Additional reporting PA Real Life.

Watch: What is 'empty nest syndrome'?