Sunday, February 17, 2013

Retirement: The Next Phase

A former patient called me the other day to get a referral to a California therapist to help him through a crisis. And he asked how I was doing in retirement and with Arizona.

I gave him the name of an excellent psychologist who practices in Pasadena and answered his question about my new life with a quick "Oh, just fine..." which he heard immediately as less than enthusiastic.

And I realized that it would be impossible -- and probably not desirable -- to try to explain to this young man, in his twenties and struggling to establish himself in a career, that life in retirement is like life while working -- with its daily joys and challenges, the inevitable ups and downs. I told him that retirement was terrific but that it was a big life change. I told him that while I missed some aspects of my life in California, I was thoroughly enjoying life here in Arizona. And then I directed the conversation back to his immediate concerns.

After I hung up, I started thinking about life nearly three years into retirement,  remembering a conversation Bob and I had had just that morning about how retirement has ceased to be a dream and is now simply life. And, being real life, sometimes it's positive and sometimes not.

When we first moved here, we were living a dream: marveling at the miracle of not having to get up, commute through clogged freeways and go to work every day. We delighted in the gym and the friendly group of exercisers we came to know well. We luxuriated in long afternoons in the recreational pool making new friends and enjoying our neighbors. And, oh, the neighbors. After years of knowing few of our neighbors in California, we were thrilled to be friends with everyone on our street, sharing dinners, parties, outings, pet-sitting duties, long talks and the joy of connecting with new people in a new place.

Three years later, life feels a bit more familiar -- a good life somewhat short of a dream.

There are times when Bob misses being "The Pump God", a well-known expert in his hydraulic engineering field. There are times when I think wistfully about how I enjoyed seeing patients back in my practice in California. Yet neither of us really wants to go back to work at these pursuits. We're busy with other interests and goals now. And yet there are times when we look back with a wistfulness we never imagined would happen.

There are times when going to the gym just feels like a daily routine and spending an afternoon in the lovely recreational pool seems a drain on time that could be better spent. And, after an initial burst of uncharacteristically frequent social activity, we've regressed and settled into our more familiar introspective, introverted behavioral patterns.

I smile when I remember conversations we used to have in the pool during that magical summer of 2010 about the first people to move into our community, residents who had lived here for three years before we moved in. We agreed that they had major bad attitudes, weren't that friendly and  were curiously reserved about the joy of life in an active adult community.

Now we are them.

While there are some friends and neighbors we still enjoy greatly, reality has intruded on other neighborly relationships that have become less friendly, merely cordial, over time. Some neighbors have moved away already. Some have disappointed us...or have found us disappointing. So our neighborhood has ceased to be like an old television comedy -- with everyone dropping in and out of each others' homes -- and more like real life: distance with some, varying degrees of closeness with others.

While we still sometimes marvel at living in a resort community, the drawbacks we didn't anticipate when we bought our home nearly four years ago moderate our enthusiasm. We worry about the proposed copper mine that refuses to go away despite a series of resolutions passed by the town of Florence against in situ mining in a residential area. Some neighbors, initially charmed by our wide-open, rural location, now fret about our community's distance from shopping and movies and good restaurants, wondering if civilization will creep closer by the time they can no longer drive great distances.

In short, the retirement honeymoon is over.

In so many ways, it's like other phases of our lives after the thrill of novelty began to fade.

I remember a long-ago dinner party I enjoyed with six or seven journalism classmates about two years after graduation, when we were still quite new to our varied careers in the business. We were so enthusiastic, so idealistic, so excited about what we were doing and the directions our lives were taking. As the years went by, we still largely enjoyed what we did for a living, but reality had intruded: office politics, professional limitations, massive changes in the newspaper, magazine and book publishing industries. We all had our disappointments and battle scars to add to our work lore.

It's not so different with many marriages. Some people panic when the passion of their early love seems dimmed by the responsibilities of daily married life. I've seen clients in marriage counseling come close to giving up when they feared that love and passion were gone... when, in reality, their relationship was merely in transition, having one of those "distance then renewed closeness" phases that happen in long relationships.

It's not so different when some of the excitement fades from living one's retirement dream.

People have different reactions to this reality. Some put their homes up for sale and hope to live a dream anew elsewhere -- only to find, more often than not, that life elsewhere is pretty much the same. Some withdraw in disillusionment and disappointment. And some seek make the best of what is.

We're among the latter.

Realizing that constant happiness is an impossibility, even under the best of circumstances, we're making the choice to stay positive, to accept current reality and to make peace with what is.

A big factor in this is gratitude.  We are living with gratitude at having lived long enough and having the resources -- no thanks to recessions, bursting housing bubbles and decimated 401Ks -- to retire.

We keep warm memories of the past and good times in the present closest to our hearts. This means that Bob's memories of being a technical whiz at his workplace make him smile and give thanks for those moments in his life. It means that I look back with wonder and gratitude as I remember the patients who allowed me into their lives and the moments we shared together.

And we take joy in the best of the present -- a moment of clarity with a dear friend, wonder at the beauty of this new and very different place, the joy of being physically active and those wonderful days when nothing hurts.

We've come to understand that happiness comes most readily not from getting, but from giving, not from hedonistic pleasures but from doing what gives our lives meaning. This meaning can cover a wide area of daily life -- from tenderly cuddling an aging, arthritic pet to helping someone in need to  pursuing activities that make us excited to get up in the morning. And then there's the comfort and joy of sharing pain and hope and new experiences with each other.

Life is good.

Having a sense of well-being and contentment as this next phase of retirement unfolds comes from acceptance of what is, appreciation for what is positive and good in our lives and a growing sense of peace with what isn't. 


  1. I read this with great interest since I will likely be retiring at the end of this school year. My husband will still work another 10 years, and I will want to work part time at something while he finishes out those years, but your post certainly gave me valuable information to turn over and ponder.

    I'm glad you are very truthful that retirement is not the nirvana we all imagine it to be while we're working. Another chapter, a new one, and one that will have its good times and challenges, for certain.

  2. This is a good post. We're almost three years into our retirement. I had some goals for myself, and I've achieved them. I'm now looking at what's next, and so far I don't know.

    We are in Arizona for the winter, for the first time, and we love living in an RV resort community. But I have no desire to move here permanently - not only because I'm intolerant of heat, but because we're not ready to leave our home and community in Washington State. Being in a familiar place has lots of advantages too. We do plan to come back to Tucson next January, and stay for three months instead of two. But I'll be looking for ways to be useful in the community. It's not quite enough to just be having fun all the time.

  3. We can read and fantasize about our dreams, but the reality will always be more complex, more nuanced. This post should be required reading for all those people who are betting that all their problems will disappear once they are retired.

  4. I agree with rosaria. This should be required reading for pre-retirees. I love retirement but like a new romance, the thrills have dimmed a bit but that is not bad. There is a lot to be said for comfort, just like in a seasoned relationship.

  5. Dear Kathy, thank you for the following words with which you ended this important posting. I needed to read these words and I need to remember them: "Having a sense of well-being and contentment as this next phase of retirement unfolds comes from acceptance of what is, appreciation for what is positive and good in our lives and a growing sense of peace with what isn't." Peace.

  6. How is it that your posts always get me where I live? As you may or may not know, I'm planning to retire this summer, or sooner. Part of it is medical, although hopefully I would be well enough that isn't the issue. Most is just being ready to leave a toxic work environment and waiting until the ducks are as well lined up as they can be. One of the things that worries me most is missing the local notoriety I currently have. It's fun to be on TV and recognized. And while I plan to remain involved in my community, get fit, all that -- it will be a chance. Right now it seems a welcome change, but I will try to remember to check in three years from now and let you know!

  7. I can endorse every word you. We have been retired a little longer than you and every word of your post is still true for us too. There are days when I can’t believe my luck, and there are days when I think: is this it?

    Both kinds of days bring their own resolutions and, in the end, sticking with what is is the only, the best, and the sensible way to be. Laughing or crying or whatever comes in between, it’s so much better than the alternative of not being.

  8. I always take so much away from your posts.


  9. Thoughtful post, and of course you're right. But I myself am still "in love" with retirement ten years after leaving work. I get up every morning thankful that I can live life for myself and my family, rather than have most of my time, energy and focus sucked up by the corporate world.

  10. As everyone else I am so glad you wrote this post. I agree it should be required reading for anyone near retirement age.
    I have been having these same feelings lately and I am not exactly retired.
    I do wish I could find the peace that your speaking of finding. I feel like that there is so much I want to do but will not be able to do any of these things the way my life is now. Not what I anticipated in my older age.
    Think of you often and hope you are well.
    Love ya

  11. Rereading this today as I count down. Weekend wishes!

  12. I am almost two years into retirement and I must still be in the honeymoon stage. I do love it. And even though I loved my job with a deep passion and excitement, I was ready to leave it and I really don't miss it. In fact, my life seems so full now I'm not sure how I ever had time for a career. So maybe in a year or two, life will settled down into the new normal. And that will be fine, too.

  13. I am so far behind on my blog reading, that I can't believe you posted this three weeks ago and I am just reading it. Kathy, you speak truth. Your words ring true with me. I find my husband and I feeling the same way. I think retirement that includes a move is especially challenging after the honeymoon stage is over. We are so happy we made our move, but retirement and a change of residence never meant that life would be one big honeymoon. Thanks for writing this.

  14. Well said. I think for us building a new house in the woods next to our old one helped. We lost our eldest son to the effects of bi polar. And needed a frest start upon retirement but kept our tried and true friends and activities...

  15. I forgot to say something in my first comment:

    I have been retired since 2000 and am constantly amazed at how working people ever get household tasks done. Hiring someone to fix the roof, planting a new garden in the back yard, going to offices to fill out papers and turn them in, all of the things that Have To Get Done.

    I have a hard enough time with time management as it is and wonder how I did it when I was working as a single woman before marrying my husband, who had already retired. I wonder at single women with children who get things done in the little free time that they have.


  16. Mon, Apr 8, 2013 09:45 PM PST -- I read his again. I think I will write a post about my experiences as a retiree. Maybe not tonight, because I have a margarita still dancing in my head, but soon. Thank you for the inspiration. L.