Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Rethinking Retirement

When I called my friend Chuck, a busy and successful physician, to wish him a happy 69th birthday earlier this month, his voice was filled with stress and exhaustion.

"I'm so glad that this will be my last working birthday," he said. "I'm getting too old for this -- seeing a patient every 15 minutes and working every other weekend. I just don't have the energy anymore."

He told me that while he might hang onto his medical license, he had no intention of doing any work -- ever -- after his retirement this coming July.

I recognized the exhaustion, the longing for leisure. But, from the vantage point of four years into retirement, living the total immersion experience in an active adult -- mostly retired -- community, I choked back a cautionary response.

Retirement may be a shock for this hard-working -- and much feted -- professional.

He may struggle with identity once the accolades cease and the role he has played for more than 40 years is in the past.

Or maybe not.

Maybe his love of travel -- and his means to do all the traveling he could imagine -- will be sustaining. Maybe the luxury of just being, just living quietly, in his lovely home with his partner of 35 years will be a dream come true.

It's so hard to predict how retirement will play out for an individual once the initial euphoria over not having to get up at a certain hour, not having to commute or to deal with office politics or overwhelming work loads has passed.

We each build our own retirement lifestyle. For some it is, indeed a dream come true. For others, it is a miasma of boredom, conflict and loss.

What can make the difference?

A realistic pre-retirement wish list. Take a close and hard look at your financial situation and what is possible before you retire. If extensive travel is beyond your means, can you be happy with day trips closer to home? Or relocating to a spot that feels like you're on vacation? If you want to maintain a lifestyle that may be difficult with retirement income, would it be worth it to you to work some years longer to build your retirement savings?

In addition to dollars and cents, consider genetics, your health and the march of time in this mix. How is your health now? How have your family elders fared in their later years? Will postponing your retirement and travels preclude certain adventures that time and aging may make impossible? Some travels may need to be vacations now, not later. Weigh the possibilities. What can you live without -- and what is critical to your retirement happiness?

And what interests and hobbies are on your list to pursue once retired? If that list is non-existent or very short, think again. In my own observations of many retired people here, the ones who tend to struggle the most post-retirement are those who did not have a plan once work stopped. Far too many spend endless hours staring at a television screen and wondering what to do with themselves.

Another consideration for retirement choices: the growing and changing of your family. I've seen so many people choose to age in place to be near grandchildren or to move to be close to family -- only to find that grandchildren with busy schedules don't have as much time as the grandparents had hoped to hang out with them. Or kids get job transfers that take them away. Or they want to spend more time with their kids without extended kin -- which means you -- and you may see much less of all of them than you had hoped. Certainly, family and dear friends are a consideration in your decision to move or stay, but they can't be the major reason for a decision one way or another -- because so much can change.

A compromise in lifestyle choices. It's certainly not uncommon for a lot of post-retirement restlessness and disappointment to come as a result of spouses disagreeing on lifestyle.

One partner may want to move to a warmer location while the other prefers to stay put near family and friends. Looking at your own situation, what might work for both of you? Perhaps you'll choose to stay put for now with regular vacations to the sunbelt. Or move to the sunbelt with regular trips back to see friends and relatives. About half of our community here in Arizona are "snowbirds" who have primary homes elsewhere but who spend winters here in the sun. That's a great compromise for those who can afford to buy a second home -- or to rent for the winter months.

For those who have to make a hard choice about the location of their one home, it's important for partners to listen and to try to understand each other's reasons behind preferences for home location and lifestyle.

One neighbor couple made the decision to relocate here after a serious discussion of priorities. They had been married for more than forty years and he had married her when she was a young, divorced single mother with a toddler son.  After they added another son to the mix, their life was devoted to raising the kids and, with time, with helping to raise the grandkids. The man not only longed for life in a sunnier climate, but also wanted -- at long last -- more quality time with his wife without extended family around on a daily basis. She had vigorously opposed a move away from kin, but as they talked about why he wanted to move, she began to see his point of view. They made an agreement: they would move. But they would also return to visit family for the holidays each year and every summer, they would take a vacation with the whole family.  So far, nearly five years into this arrangement, all is well.

Another frequent area of conflict is in daily tasks: one partner, citing retirement, sits and simply watches or, worse, directs the action -- as the other spouse tackles all the household tasks. You may find peace in compromising on housework so that both partners can have more leisure. For some couples, this means sharing tasks more equally -- recognizing that homemakers deserve some respite as well in retirement. For others, it can mean paying for professional yard services or house cleaning. For still others, it has meant taking a chore and turning it into a hobby: a number of couples here are enthusiastic members of the community cooking club -- trying and testing new recipes as the couples cook together, progressing way beyond the mindset of "Hey, honey! What's for dinner?"

Giving yourself permission to change your mind.  Your choice of a retirement lifestyle doesn't have to be set in stone. One couple I know imagined spending their retirement on the road as carefree RVers, but found that they missed a sense of community. So they amended their retirement plans a bit: now they spend half the year on the road in their RV and the other six months as active members of this community.

But it's important to realize that some decisions are harder than others to undo -- e.g. giving up a career and letting time pass and then trying to get back into the job market. It can make sense to hang onto a professional license or to keep your hand in your work part-time if cold turkey full-time retirement feels too intimidating and final. While a number of aging Boomers plan to work part-time during at least the early years of retirement, it's often easiest to realize that dream of working part-time by continuing to work fewer hours for the same employer or in the same profession, perhaps on a consulting basis, or by reinventing yourself in your own business. Getting a new job in your sixties and beyond isn't impossible, but it can be a challenge.

Sometimes -- overwhelmed with exhaustion, burnout or aggravation -- we idealize the freedom of retirement and minimize how much work means to us.

Make no mistake: I still have moments of euphoria on a weekday when I can sleep until 8 a.m. if I choose instead of getting up at 4:30 a.m. and sprinting for the commuter bus. I still feel delight on a Sunday when I can linger over coffee and newspapers instead of working a stressful 9 hour shift seeing mostly court-ordered patients -- as I did during a two-year clinical internship 20 years ago -- which I loathed so much (mostly due to the management's mistreatment of interns) that I still marvel to find my Sundays free.

That said, I didn't realize how much I had missed certain aspects of my previous work life until I sold a book -- my first in six years -- to a major publisher recently and found myself working feverishly with a tight deadline.

Of course, I moaned and complained as I always have about deadlines. But I also felt energized and joyous most days as I worked on the book. It had been far too long since I had found myself totally immersed in a writing project. And this book was a departure from my usual themes: "Purr Therapy" is a memoir about two cats who worked with me periodically in my private psychotherapy practice to help soothe and calm anxious patients. So, in part, the book is also a memoir about my career as a psychotherapist, a career I chose to give up when I retired (though I've retained my professional license in California).

Writing the book reminded me how much I had loved my career as a therapist and what joy writing brought to my life. I always imagined my work as a writer figuring prominently into my retirement years. But I didn't realize how important writing was to my sense of well-being until I was hard at work again. I now envision a bit more work and a little less leisure in my future.

Making the decision to retire in stages. An increasing number of our generation are choosing to retire in stages instead of stopping all work suddenly. A number of people I know are still working part-time or are active volunteers. Letting go of work in stages can be an ideal solution if your work means a great deal to you or if financial considerations preclude retirement as early as you would like.

Bob's most fervent desire was to retire at 62. But we ran the numbers and found that, with my work situation, with some years to go before I could qualify for a pension from my workplace, and with realities like a mortgage, full retirement at that early age for him just wasn't a reasonable choice, long-term, for us. However, Bob found a good compromise: he opted for a new, reduced work schedule -- taking a cut in pay for a four day work week. Fridays became precious to him, a preview of freedom to come, over the four years he waited for full retirement.

Keeping your mind open to new possibilities.  Times and feelings and people change. When endless days of golf began to get boring, some neighbors got into volunteer work at the local elementary school or the Food Bank or the county animal shelter. Some found themselves pursuing political or social activism. "I couldn't have imagined that I'd be doing this!" one friend said, smiling in sudden amazement, as we stood on a picket line protesting a proposed copper mine near our community.

As we were ending our birthday phone conversation, Chuck sighed as his nurse reminded him that yet another patient was waiting. "Well, who knows?" he said. "I think I will keep my license just in case. I don't want to work for money ever again, but, now that I think of it, it might be good to use my medical skills to volunteer. I think I might really enjoy volunteer work...."

I smiled and we agreed -- retirement brings so many possibilities for contentment, for fun and growth and for joy in doing work we love and giving to others.


  1. I do hope people about to retire read your thoughts here. You are very thorough in your analysis.

  2. Excellent advice, as usual, Kathy! My husband retired from the Air Force at age 55 and did not want to work for anybody again! Fortunately, he had bought an investment property and is able to do a lot of the upkeep and management himself -- and he loves it! I worry now, though as he is 72 and still going on as vigorously -- or almost -- as ever. He moans sometimes that he wishes he lived 'somewhere warm' -- but his choices are places that don't speak English -- and he is impossible when it comes to learning a foreign language! So we are content to have our French property for him to work at -- but the years are ongoing and the aches and pains are warning both of us that we need to make some adjustments to the way we do things -- and it would be nice to make those adjustments ourselves and not have them thrust upon us...

  3. These are great things to think about. I am like your friend in that I don't think I will ever return to my profession for money, but as a volunteer, I would gladly (and will in a few months.)

  4. I agree that this post should be required reading for anyone considering retirement.
    I personally have loved every single moment of my retirement. The freedom to explore, to do or even not do, is just wonderful. My dad hated it. He had no interests besides reading and crossword puzzles. He ended up selling paint in a hardware store after retiring as a civil engineer just to keep busy.
    We are not all created equal regarding 24/7 free time are we?

  5. Very good analysis - more people need to read this!

  6. Hi, We are home from a wonderful trip to Arkansas with friends. Photos tomorrow!!!!!

    Hope you have had a great week. Retirement has been fantastic for George and me... BUT--since I was a work-a-holic, my family/friends all thought I would really miss working. But--NO, not at all.

    My Daddy though didn't have any interests after his retirement and he really struggled. In fact, he only lived another 4 yrs after retiring.

    It's all about finding your passions after retirement --and doing them!!!! Works for me! I'm busier now than I ever was.


  7. My dad hated it. He had no interests besides reading and crossword puzzles.Top Ten Web Hosting Reviews

  8. Dear Kathy, this posting truly needs to be published in the AARP magazine. It concisely and accurately sums up the concerns and dreams of retiring. I kept working full tilt on my writing for five years after retiring and then I became ill in 2006 and there have been some health problems on and off since then. Like you, I've discovered that writing is a balm as well as an energizer and so, like you, I"m wanting to write and have someone--an agent or an editor--give me deadlines that I work to meet. That sounds right now to me like nirvana! Peace.

  9. You have excellent advice here for people contemplating retirement. It is a difficult period in anyone’s life.

    I found it important to retain interests and activities separate from life as a married couple, which means that we always find something talk about.

  10. You have indeed given us a very complete list of things to consider about retirement. I think we went into retirement a bit befuddled as a couple. My husband had worked so long and hard that he really had to retire. I think retirement was easy on him until we moved. Now he struggles. I also struggle at times. I miss my career. I do not miss the everyday nature of it. All in all, I think we have adjusted in stages. I think that we have had complications that made it more difficult. The death of my daughter sent retirement plans into a tail spin. We are just now coming out of it all.

  11. I am not at the retirement age yet, but will be soon, as I am 57. Thank you so much for sharing this. Greetings from Montreal, Canada.