Thursday, November 15, 2012

Retirement : The Dream vs. Reality

Our retirement dreams come in an endless variety.

There are those who dream of moving closer to kids and grandkids and participating in their lives on a daily basis.

There are those who read the glossy brochures about active adult communities offering promises of non-stop fun and activities and a new sense of belonging.

There are those who plan to stay in place but with more time to enjoy hobbies and interests.

And there are those who dream of travel and adventure -- from full-time RVing to traveling the world.

For many, these dreams come true, sometimes more vividly, more wonderfully than they ever imagined.

For others, there can be a huge gap between what they expect in retirement and what life evolves to be.

There are a lot of reasons why reality can be quite different from one's initial retirement dreams.

It can be a matter of timing. Grandparents move to be close to grandchildren just as they are transitioning to adolescence, have countless activities and want to be with their friends more than with family. Or some may wait for years after retirement - while staying close to family -- to move to an active adult community. At that point, they may be disappointed, feeling isolated and finding that this is not the ideal lifestyle for someone at an advanced age and/or with significant disabilities who might be happier in assisted living or in a life care community.

It can be a matter of an imbalance between fantasy and gritty reality. There are many people who read the brochures for communities like this and come to visit in the winter -- and think it's perfect, only to be shellshocked come summer.

There is a couple who live a block away from us who followed that pattern. Natives of India who have lived most of their lives in London and then, more briefly, Chicago, they came for a visit in December 2009 and were blown away by the beauty of the place and the wide range of activities. They immediately bought an already completed spec home and moved in the next month, absolutely delighted. The shock came around May when temperatures began to soar. The husband, who is in his late 80's, was hospitalized twice with heat exhaustion even from brief exposure. The wife, who is a decade younger, is active in exercise classes and other activities, but also suffers from the heat. Now they are here only five months a year -- needing to stay with their son in New York or their daughter in Northern California during the spring, summer and early fall months. And they talk a lot about selling their home and moving to a more forgiving climate.

Their experience -- and that of many others -- could have been avoided if they had come to look at the community at another time of year. If you're thinking about moving to the Southwest, here's a hint: do an exploratory trip in late July or August. You'll get the double treat of the blazing heat along with monsoon humidity. If you're planning to be a full-time resident, that's the true test of whether this is the place for you. Only if you're an aspiring "Snowbird" would checking out a community like this in the winter make any sense at all. (Bob and I made two trips over here in July of 2008 and July 2009 before making the decision to buy.)

Even if you don't re-locate in retirement, the gap between dream and reality can be jarring. Life just feels much different than you imagined once you clock out at work for the last time.

You may have dreamed of life feeling exciting and free in retirement. And it is. There is something incredibly delicious about going to the movies at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning or living largely free of alarm clocks and tight schedules.

Aunt Molly always told me that the best part of retirement was waking up each morning and saying to herself "Today is MINE!"

But for some people, the loss of work connections and prestige and the weight of unscheduled time is an unexpected stressor. There are, of course, some of us who are delighted with every moment and fill our days with good conversations, reading, hobbies, family and friends and volunteer work. But there are others who feel overwhelmed by all the available hours or who wonder, with quiet anguish, "Who am I now??"

One neighbor sits mindlessly watching anything that happens to be on t.v. or, often, he just sits and stares straight ahead for many hours of the day. He never developed interests or hobbies outside of work -- and thinks he's too old to start cultivating any now. Of course, it's never really too late to be fascinated by life, to offer one's services and skills. Many men who live here find that they miss their work lives more than they ever imagined, but are filling the gap with volunteer work or consulting.

There are those, too, who envisioned a retirement entirely on the move as RVers or constant travelers and who, in reality, have ended up modifying their dreams by choice or by unforeseen circumstances.

Our neighbors Bill and Susan were full-time RVers for six years before they decided to buy a home here. The reason? "We felt rootless," Susan explained recently. "We missed having a real home base."  So they hit the road with their RV from May through October and come home to be lively members of the community the rest of the year. It's a lovely mix now of new roots and new adventures.

Some other neighbors, who absolutely love travel and have made some memorable trips in the three years I've known them, have been grounded now by ill health. It's quite likely that their traveling days are over forever. They have warm memories of their adventures -- and are grateful to be in a home they love and with many caring friends. Staying home full-time isn't exactly what they had in mind quite yet -- but they're adjusting to the new challenges life has given them.

Of course, not all the gaps between dreams and reality in retirement mean modifying or letting go of pre-retirement dreams.

For some, retirement is even better than the dream.

Envisioning living life on 1/3 of our previous income, Bob and I were cautiously optimistic. The reality has been much better.  Life on our smaller income is has turned out to be better than we ever imagined,  largely because our  lifestyle and our priorities have changed.

When we were working, we were often too tired to think of going home and cooking dinner,  so we'd eat out -- a lot.  We both dressed up for work. We squeezed times of fun in between the many hours of work and our vacations were true getaways so we could escape the stresses of our lives.

Now we eat out only occasionally and dress casually, strictly for comfort. We do have fun activities.  Many of them, like trips to three different excellent libraries and reading the treasures we find there, going to the gym here, swimming and making music, cost nothing. And while we've taken several getaway vacations -- one to New York, two to Hawaii -- since retiring, we have no plans for any others anytime soon. In the next year, we plan to thoroughly enjoy staycations here at home or day trips to local points of interest and maybe a driving trip to see my cousin Caron who is dear to my heart and unwell.

We've found that life on a reduced income can be just fine -- especially if one has no debt and a willingness to explore new ways to enjoy life.

Making a retirement dream reality can mean a lot more than simply wishing and dreaming. It can mean a lot of hard work and careful planning long before you leave your workplace for the last time. It can mean weighing all your options carefully, researching all the advantages and disadvantages of moving or staying put, getting free of debt before retirement, developing interests that don't cost a lot in addition to plans for those once-in-a-lifetime travel adventures.

It can also mean developing a sense of belonging wherever you are. For some, belonging may mean staying or moving near family. For some, belonging may be the vision of active social lives in one's familiar town or in an active adult community where people come from all over the nation and are eager to build a new circle of friends. And sometimes, belonging is a mixture of treasured people and places.

When I was first dreaming of retirement, I wanted to be in a community where neighbors knew each other well. In Valencia, where we lived for 29 years, we had very few friends in the immediate area. People who lived in Valencia -- us among them -- commuted long distances to work and were too exhausted in the evenings and, often, on weekends, too, to even think about socializing. The whole concept of belonging in the Del Webb community literature -- "It Isn't Just a Place to Live, But To Belong" -- was tremendously appealing. I envisioned lots of socializing, participating in a full array of exercise classes and academic classes, being involved in clubs  and volunteering.

The reality has been limited in scope only by my own inclinations.

When Bob and I first moved to Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch two-and-a-half years ago, the ambiance here on our street, in our immediate neighborhood, was highly social. I hadn't seen such popping in and out of neighbors' houses since I was a child in the Fifties. There were open houses, dinner parties, excursions and meals out all the time. I found that I enjoyed knowing my neighbors, but that I also craved time alone to think and read and concentrate on writing.

I found that I enjoyed exercising daily, but in my own time and way, unhampered by a lock-step schedule of classes. I found that my own interests were so time-consuming that club activities didn't really appeal as much close up as they had from afar.

 Now the social scene overall has calmed down a bit: some friendships have cooled, others have deepened. We've settled into a lovely routine of abundant alone time to read, time at the gym (where we see lots of friends) and time with people who have come to be extended family to us.

At the same time, I fly back over to Los Angeles on a regular basis to visit with my friend Mary who is unable to travel because of her husband's increasing health problems, and with my brother and his family who now live mostly in Bangkok, but who are occasionally back in L.A. for business and pleasure. It's always a pleasure to see them and familiar haunts.

But I don't regret the move here. This has become home, with a unique sense of belonging that exceeds our sweetest dreams. 


  1. Wow- your Aunt Molly's declaration that, "This day is mine," so resonates with me. I am still teetering between retiring and not retiring. However, since I am 51, I would still be able to work a second career for many years if I want to. So many things to think about I hadn't anticipated at the beginning of this school year.

    Retirement is so different than it was even 10 years ago. I appreciate your wisdom!

    1. You have so many exciting options, Shelly! I think it's wonderful that you can imagine a second career following this one with the security of a retirement pension to remove some of the risk of change. Yes, retirement is changing so much, but I hope that all the changes will be favorable for you.

  2. Food for thought - as always. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting, jenny_o! I always love hearing from you!

  3. Ah, you live in Anthem? We pass by there between the airport and Sedona.

    We'll be snowbirding in Tucson for two months this winter - rented a park model at an RV resort. We'll see how living in a very active, very friendly community agrees with us.

  4. Oh, no, Linda, not THAT Anthem! It gets so confusing! We live in Anthem Merrill Ranch, a planned community with a Del Webb Sun City and an all ages section called Parkside, which is half way between Tucson and Phoenix near the historic town of Florence. So we're way, way south of the Anthem you know. Wow -- Tucson for the winter? Come see us! It would be great to meet you! We're only an hour north of Tucson.

  5. Your Aunt Molly's declaration is my anthem. I really enjoyed working but retirement has it beat all to heck. It is the freedom of choice and lack of schedule that is so wonderful.

  6. It's my anthem, too, Pattii! I never forget to be grateful for each day of freedom even though, like you, I truly liked my work.

  7. I love reading your post today. Lot's of food for thought.

    I'm turning 66 in just a little over a week and I would love retire just so I can have a "This Day Is All Mine" day once in a while.

    My husband has no intention of retiring from farming our Dairy farm any time soon, so I keep on waking up early every morning and go to work feeding and caring for calves and all the office work and everything in between, seven days a week.

    I'm still dreaming about retirement especially in the early morning hours.
    I don't need much, but I love working with my hands, reading books that makes me think of ways to be a better person and to understand myself and others better, gardening, photography, cooking, rug hooking, cross stitch, etc. but don't have as much spare time as I would like to do these things.

    I love visits from grand kids but I know that everyone has lives of their own.

    I'm never bored and I know that life can be beautiful at any stage, depending on attitude and acceptance of the things that I cannot change and the courage to change what I can change.

    Blogging is a wonderful retirement pastime and can be beneficial for both the writers as well as the followers.


  8. Planning is all!
    Slipping into retirement was possible in the long ago, when a) we didn’t live many years afterwards, and b) when retirement meant getting put into the inglenook while the young ones took over.

    I like living in an organically grown community like our village, with old and young mixed and activities for all. We are not the greatest mixers but there is always something which allows curmudgeons like us to participate.

    The most important thing is attitude of mind, stay active and keep your mind ticking and make sure you have the social contact you need.

  9. Dear Kathy, you've given me much to think about and ponder in this post. And Friko's comment above also makes me pause. I'm simply not sure whether staying here in Missouri is the right decision for me or moving back to Minnesota. I suspect that this house not selling may make the decision for me. But I'd like to make the decision and feel some sense of relief and deep down peace from the quandary of it all. Peace.

  10. My own retirement is NOTHING as I imagined. I retired early to take care of an aging mother. AFter 5 years of doing that I was forced to do what I tried for 5 years to avoid - move her into Assisted Living. I was exhausted. My own life was so totally dedicated to her care that I didn't know what was left of me. Now she is settled living somewhere else and my husband's eyes are failing him - leading towards blindness. And so my freedom and plans for retirement are once again changed. Planning for retirement was not something that worked out for me.

    I have decided that you must go with the flow of life and not try to plan it away. Our planned priorities (travel, fun, freedom) sometimes must take a back seat to realities ... and our priorities must change. I now hold scared good health, family connections, personal hobbies, joy in the smaller simpler things of life. I am happier for it. I am not even sure I would travel now if I had the chance.

    I am satisfied.

  11. I love the way you have outlined the dream vs. the reality. I find that in each stage of retirement, I have had to define my own terms. I am much like you in that I like the social popping and out on paper more than in reality. I like to do things on my own schedule. I'm not one for "lock step exercise" either. I quit working so I did not have to have a schedule and so I didn't have to socialize/work with the same folks day after day. I don't want to get trapped into that same lifestyle with retirement.

  12. Kathy, this was a very timely post for me to read right now. I am contemplating (anticipating) retirement in August next year when I can collect social security. Things at my office have become so very wretched that it seems time to go. I went to a workshop recently and one of the things they emphasized was 'are you ready' -- what will you miss and how will you replace that? It was a good exercise. I realized there are some things I will miss -- the visibility from being on television and several friends, being part of something that is good (for working for public television and radio IS good, even if some of the current leaders in our place aren't the best). But I also realized that I wanted (and need) to work part time and that will bring some socialization. I will be able to spend more time with friends and really, that's so important. And for the first time in many moons, I'll be able to set a schedule. No excuses if I don't do the things I've threatened to do. And that, I think, will give me structure. I hope so.

  13. My parents retired to a catamaran in the Caribbean for six years before retiring from THAT and moving back to Minnesota, where they live full time and have started a new business. :-) They might be a bit nuts.


  14. It's good to hear that you are content with your decisions and your home. As you know, that can be a slippery slope sometimes.

    My husband is inching into retirement, and I mean INCHING! But I've finally learned to let him go at his own pace. It'll take a while but eventually he'll get there at which time, I'm hoping we can downsize our home and move to a more contained community. Fingers crossed.

    Thanks for always leaving such thoughtful comments on my blog. I really appreciate it. I hope the coming holidays are joyful and fun for you. Happy Thanksgiving, xo jj

  15. Great Post! I had to Retire early {and forfeit a considerable portion of my Pension} and quite unexpectedly when my Husband's Health deteriorated and we became Custodial Grandparents of two of our G-Kids with Special Needs, making Child Care an Issue. It is good to be able to adapt and improvise because Life does not always unfold as 'planned' or 'expected' in our Dreams and projected Vision. It can be a Process to have Contentment & Peace in the midst of forced Changes that throw your carefully made Plans for a loop and unexpected turns of events create Challenges you didn't explore or come prepared for. I have found however, that Purpose can be Revealed in different ways you didn't carefully Plan out... and if you Believe that everything IS as it should be in the grand scheme of things... you'll be okay with whatever and however Life unfolds like and Appreciate every Blessing all the more.

    Happy Thanksgiving from the Arizona Desert... Dawn... The Bohemian

  16. Kathy,I just got the turkey mess cleaned up and all the leftover pie I decided to relax this morning and get caught up on my favorite blogs. Once again you've made me sit up in my chair and read with rapt attention. Yes! You have perfectly described the process. You would be a welcome contributor to AARP magazine and other venues that potential retirees are consulting, saving seniors lots of money and anguish with your truth-telling. It's unfortunate that we have to experiment to finally find ourselves, often with disastrous results. I like it here but so many of our neighbors don't. The multitude of "for sale" signs lining our streets tell the tale. I appreciate you and your writing immensely. Thank you.

  17. Hi Kathleen, this is Kathleen!
    Just HAD to open like that-forgive me! I have recently moved to be closer to my son and his family (I am a new grandmother, whichis a delight!). For me, it's not so much about retiring, just closer to my new extended family, as when I spend time with them, it bouys me up considerably. I'm finding that I'm choosing to be distant from my sisters and mother (in a nursing home) who live in another state. Would love to discuss more with you, perhaps in a more private way.
    There is so much onyour blog, what I've read so far resonates with me in many ways.

  18. I think it all falls down to the preferences and needs of an individuals. I am actually helping my relatives find a good retirement community. We chose the ny retirement community because of the location. It is just near where we live so we can visit all the time. They always receive great support and care from the community, which is good. The amenities are very good as well.