Monday, June 13, 2011

Retirement Nightmares: A Different View

Not long ago, a local newspaper ran a story about Ralph Ver Ploeg, a 75-year-old Mesa, Arizona man who works the drive-through line at a McDonald's in neighboring Gilbert. People opt eagerly for his line, even if it moves a little slower than the other. Why? Because, in addition to his order-taking efficiency, Ralph asks how a customer's day is going. He delights in hearing their news and offers support to people struggling through a job loss or divorce. He's kind. He cares. And his goodbye is "God bless."

In some ways, Ralph would seem to be living a old-age nightmare: he needs to work to supplement his retirement benefits. He was laid off from a full-time job in security two years ago and was unable to find full-time work. So he applied for part-time positions and landed at McDonald's.  He sees the lay-off as a great blessing because it brought him to the drive-through and the opportunity to share his love for God and life in general with hundreds of people a day.  His eyes filled with tears as he talked with the reporter about his job: "I love it so much. I feel that my whole life has been in preparation for this."

Such a positive attitude in the face of harsh economic realities is an inspiration and a lesson in making the most of what life brings.  I've seen seniors with so much more in material comforts complaining about being bored or not having friends or a spouse not being available enough -- or being too present -- and I can't help but think what we can learn from peers who seem so rich with so much less.

I have a dear friend I'll call Joe. I met Joe about twenty years ago in graduate school when I went back for a clinical Master's in psychology. When he walked into the classroom for the first time, clad in jeans and a Laker's t-shirt and speaking with a heavy New York accent, he seemed like a big, personable jock. Not surprisingly, he was a high school teacher and coach. I was shocked to discover, some weeks later, that he was, not so incidentally, a Catholic monk.

Initially, my reaction was to avoid him. A lapsed Catholic, I didn't want to get into a discussion of my issues with the Church.  "But you don't understand," he said, sitting beside me at the dinner break one day. "I'm in a period of my life when I'm questioning so much. I really would like to talk with someone who has questioned, too." With our questioning, our doubts, our stresses in working full-time while taking on a demanding graduate program, we became fast friends.  In our classroom clinical exercises, Joe showed promise of being an excellent therapist: he listened, remembered, encouraged, was down-to-earth, used humor appropriately and cared deeply.  Although he ultimately decided to transfer to the non-clinical program to become a school counselor, we still met for dinner breaks. On graduation day, we went out for a celebratory dinner together with our families.

In the years since, life has been less than kind to Joe.  He made the painful decision to leave the religious order he had entered at the age of thirteen. He taught religion and ethics at various Catholic high schools. He fought bouts of depression as he struggled to make his own way in the world after more than 40 years in a religious order. He went back to New York to care for his mother during her last illness. Some years passed. After her death, he headed back to California where, now 65, he has struggled to find work. He put in applications for substitute teaching. Nothing. He worked at Home Depot where, as the most recently hired, he was laid off in a cutback. He is currently living mostly in his 15-year-old car with his beloved dog and is surviving on lean Social Security benefits -- lean because, for the more than 40 years he worked as a religious order teacher, the Church did not pay into Social Security. His benefits cover only the last 15 years of his work since he left the order.  But he isn't complaining. He sees life as a blessing and a chance to reach out.  

Talking with a depressed teenage girl in a park one day, he dug deep into his suitcase of his life's treasures and gave her a copy of the 1994 edition of my "Understanding Teenage Depression" book that I had signed and given to him all those years ago, encouraging her to take it home and share it -- and her feelings -- with her parents.  He found a $5 bill on the sidewalk one day and invited another homeless man to enjoy a feast with him at a local fast food restaurant. He is upbeat about his situation. "Sure I'd love to be working, teaching, again," he says. "I'm going to keep applying for teaching jobs, for any jobs. But I feel blessed. I've made peace with myself. Even if nothing changes, I'm a happy man. I'm living in an area I love. I have my faithful, sweet dog. I feel God is with me. I enjoy the sunshine and the ocean air. I can laugh at myself and at life. I have no regrets and wonderful memories. I loved my time as a monk. I loved teaching and doing missionary work in New Guinea. And studying psychology was such a gift. Think of it -- me, this poor kid growing up in a tenement in New York. What a great life I've had! Sure, I'm broken in some ways. I know now that depression is in my genes. My father self-medicated with alcohol. I take medication. Life isn't always easy. But I'm blessed. I still love. I still laugh. I still have so much to give, however I find a way. My goal is random kindness every day I live."

I marveled at his enthusiasm as we spoke on the phone.  I've been plagued on occasion by bag lady fantasies and have wondered how I would cope if I were to lose everything and be looking at growing old on the margins of society.

Perhaps those challenges are not the worst nightmares of old age after all. Maybe there is more to fear from what I see from some other peers:  pettiness, boredom, selfishness, bigotry, unkindness or complacency.

I don't know if I would be as gracious as Ralph Ver Ploeg if I found myself working the drive-through at McDonald's or as kind and giving as Joe if I found myself homeless. But the lessons they can teach on savoring an unlikely opportunity, counting blessings, living with kindness and gratitude and love every day are priceless. 


  1. I'm not so sure I would cope as well as either your friend or Ralph. Thankfully, so far, I haven't had to worry about having to do so.

    Retirement can be scary when it comes right down to it. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that I am earning half of what I used to earn and must therefore be a bit more thrifty.

  2. I know, Sally, me, too. We're living on 1/3 of what we used to make and so far, so good -- and we do have some savings to back us up. But still, it's scary. I think my friend Joe has lived most of his life without being concerned with material matters, since poverty was one of the vows he took as a monk. So he doesn't mind doing without or, for that matter, financial uncertainty. Such uncertainty drives me crazy -- in part, because my father lost his job when I was 13 and we careened from upper middle class to poverty in a very short time. I probably worry more than I should.

  3. A beautiful and thought-provoking post, Kathy. Our incomes too are much lower than they were, but we have savings and that makes all the difference.

    It also points up the different experience here in the UK. My sister has a very small pension, but government pension credit and housing benefit makes that up to a minimum income on which she can (just) manage.

  4. Hi, Perpetua: Thanks so much for your comments. The differences in the UK are, indeed, quite startling, especially given the current political controversy here about essentially eliminating Medicare and giving seniors vouchers to buy private insurance (which would be unavailable to a large segment of that population due to pre-existing conditions and lack of money to pay the balance of very expensive policies and co-pays) and making cuts in Social Security. Medicare, which is a single-payer system for those over 65, and Social Security make retirement possible for millions of us. Like you, we have savings, but depend day to day on our Social Security. And Medicare isn't a freebie: we pay $220 off the top of our monthly Social Security checks for this coverage and then pay an additional $211 for gap coverage and $100 for dental coverage (important since I have ongoing major dental work.)

  5. These are beautiful stories of people who embrace change and are resilient. I have met so many who have become bitter and resentful, with medical problems and debts to boot.

    No matter how we managed in our working lives, this stage asks for additional skills and a whole suitcase of good luck too.

    A great post,

  6. Isn't that the truth? Thanks so much for your comment and insights, Rosaria!

  7. Every time I go to the States I am re-appalled at the way certain political persuasions treat Medicare and social benefit programs as if they are the main cause of the country's financial woes. Here in the UK all our meds are paid for as well as doctors, hospitals, lab tests, etc. etc. We have worked it out and our income is better than it would be in the States if the cost of having Medicare Part B and co-pay insurance had to be paid. On the surface, to the tourist, things in the US look great, but dig a little deeper and away from the glitz and life is quite tenuous and on the edge. Too many people have to work too hard and too long and with no end in sight except the grave. But it is wonderful to hear of the equanimity with which these men face their struggles and hardships. God bless them...

  8. Kathy, your comments about Medicare also point up another huge difference between our two countries. As a pensioner, I not only don't pay anything in terms of medical care contributions, but even get all my medications free. I know that for many Americans the concept of "socialised" health care is very controversial, but it makes poverty and old age considerably less frightening for a lot of people.

  9. This is so inspiring Kathy some people really do see the glass as half full and regardless of what life throws at them remain upbeat! Thanks for sharing this!