Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Settling in to Retirement: Six Years and Counting

Once the excitement of transitioning from the working world to retirement has become an altered version of real life -- complete with dental appointments, tire rotations, bad habits and challenging friendships -- there are some settling in realizations.

It has been six years since Bob and I left our jobs in Los Angeles and headed for a new home in rural Arizona. Thinking back from the early days of our transition to the present, these are the realizations that have dawned as we've settled in.

1. Life is more expensive than we imagined.  In past year, we have had to replace several appliances as well as the entire air conditioning/heating system in our six year old house. We thought by buying a new house, we would escape major repairs and replacements, at least for a long time. Surprise. And then there are unreimbursed medical expenses. Did you know that hearing aids can cost thousands of dollars and aren't covered by insurance? We didn't either.

2. We're realizing, with new clarity, that good eating and fitness habits may postpone health problems, but don't prevent them indefinitely. In the past year, we've seen a number of friends and neighbors suffer health catastrophes and several have died.

Perhaps the most jarring event was the our friend Theo's stroke. It was a total shock. Theo was the community superman. He rode his bicycle 30 miles a day through the desert, swam laps like a champ, danced wonderfully and tirelessly (tap and ballroom were his specialties) and was Bob's star pupil in learning to play the guitar.

After his stroke a few months ago, Theo was initially partially paralyzed, spoke with slurred speech and lost his hearing on one side. When Bob visited him at the hospital, however, Theo was already astounding nurses by walking slowly but steadily down the hall, holding his walker over his head. Within a few weeks, his speech became clear again. Now he takes daily walks through the community.

But life will never be the same. His hearing loss has persisted and has ended his bike riding (because he can't hear cars coming up behind him). He walks cautiously instead of dashing through his days. He feels newly vulnerable and has agreed to his family's pleas to move to Florida to be closer to his sisters. He says he realizes that he can no longer live alone. Bob and I listen with sadness, with empathy and with a sense of foreboding. If this can happen to Theo, it could happen to anyone.

3. New pleasures have replaced the old dreams. We smile thinking of those pre-retirement dreams: the non-stop socializing, participating in community activities, exercising the freedom to stay up half the night reading a good novel and sleeping well into the next morning. Settling in here, we've realized that we're not as social as we thought, that most community activities aren't of great interest, and that our bodies don't do well these days with all nighters or fluctuating sleep patterns. We do the best with routines -- and having four cats who want breakfast by 5 a.m. keeps us in our "early to rise" mode. We've found that extending the day by getting up early feels better than being night owls. And our greatest pleasures these days come from small treats, good conversations and times shared, like our twice a month trips to three local libraries, occasionally stopping for an ice cream cone in rustic downtown Florence.

4. There are fewer expectations of others. We no longer expect to make a bunch of close friends. We're also less likely to extend the promise of friendship based on proximity and little else. We keep saying "Life is too short" and stepping back. When we do encounter a kindred spirit, it's a lovely surprise.

5. We're learning to take growing limitations in stride. Aging gathers momentum in one's seventies and beyond. There are so many things can no longer do. Arthritis precludes my dreams of resuming classes in tap and ballet, but I've rediscovered great joy in swimming. Bob can no longer run as he used to only a few years ago, but he takes a three mile walk to and from the local Starbucks every morning.

The extreme heat of Arizona summers no longer has quite the allure for Bob that it did when we first arrived. He tires more easily. But we have no plans to move. We love our house and will simply spend more time inside or in the community pool this summer.

So far, for us, the limitations of age are minor if fairly relentless. We're seeing those around us having serious, life-changing and life-threatening conditions. While we're definitely feeling much more mortal than we did six years ago, we're very grateful to still be in reasonably good health.

6. We are thinning our "Must Do" lists. We no longer have the desire to do the traveling we once imagined. Part of this is lagging energy and part is the hassle that travel has become. We used to dream about taking a "Band of Brothers" tour of Europe, but we recently tossed the brochures as the allure of this waned due to the expense, the changing nature of Europe and the fact that the World War II veterans and those with first hand experience of the major events -- people who made these tours so fascinating -- are quickly disappearing. It's harder these days to leave our cherished cats for too long -- and we find incredible pleasure just hanging out with them at home.

7. We're also looking to lighten the weight of our possessions instead of continuing to acquire. Having already experienced the stress of cleaning out my parents' home and Aunt Molly's home after their deaths, we've vowed to leave less behind. That means thinning the closet with trips to Goodwill and Vietnam Veterans of America and donating books to local libraries. It means giving family heirlooms to younger family members now instead of later.

8. We live more in the present since the future is increasingly unknowable and uncertain. We are not planning pleasures too far into the future, but looking to either let go of them or experience them sooner rather than later. We realize, with new clarity, that there may be a time when we're not able to drive long distances to see friends or to take road trips. There will certainly be a time when I can no longer run into the surf with family and swim for hours. So we have a new mantra: "Do it now!" It can apply to a trip to the beach or to calling a friend or to writing a letter to someone dear. We no longer feel we have the luxury of procrastination.

9. We're realizing that retirement is very individual experience. Some people live to golf and then come home to watch golf for hours on t.v. Some find their days seeming longer and play cards "just to kill the time." And even when both people in a relationship value their time and experiences, both individually and together, their needs may be quite different as the retirement years progress.

Bob embraces and enjoys every moment of these days and months and years -- learning, growing, savoring this blessed free time. He plays music on his guitar, does crosswords, reads a wide variety of books, takes online courses, watches at least one movie daily, takes a long walk each morning and socializes briefly but with great pleasure at our local Starbucks.

On the other hand, I'm finding, somewhat to my surprise, that traditional retirement doesn't agree with me -- at least at the moment. Instead, I'm mixing work in with my newfound leisure, and am back to writing full-time. I have a new agent, new website, have a book coming out this August and just sold another one to a publisher who plans to bring it out next year.

But my peak earning years as a writer are just memories. Publishing has changed dramatically in recent years regarding the ways authors are compensated. I may never again have the earning power I had at 35 or 40. But I'm finding more pleasure, less stress, in a writing career that isn't my sole source of income. And I know that there will come a time when I want and actively choose to let go, step back and relax. But not yet. Not just yet.

10. We've never stopped being grateful. Now that the frantic work life that we left behind is so far in the past, we have the distance to grieve what we valued about it and celebrate what we were able to escape.

Bob doesn't miss his old office, in a grimy industrial area of downtown L.A. for a minute, but he does get wistful when he remembers the pleasure of helping a customer with a complicated pumping systems problem and the joy of living up to his title of "The Pump God."

I think of my former psychotherapy patients with affection and wonder how they're doing, remembering what a pleasure it was to work with them. But I don't miss the stress of those last 20 years in Los Angeles when I juggled three jobs and drove thousands of miles on traffic-jammed L.A. freeways. From this vantage point, I wonder how I ever did it for so long.

We will never forget what it meant to be jolted awake by an alarm clock at 4 a.m. to hit the freeway in pre-dawn bumper to bumper Los Angeles traffic for our daily commutes to work. We also remember vividly that Sunday evening depression as we faced yet another frantic work week, and times of frustrating office politics and work challenges that were less than rewarding.

Settling in to our life now means it all isn't quite so new. Despite realizing the dream of retirement, life happens in a variety of familiar ways -- like dental emergencies, appliances breaking, beloved pets dying. health crises -- in these so-called golden years.

Nevertheless, the freedom to wake up with the sun, to structure one's days, to learn new skills, to pursue dreams, both old and new, make these years incredibly blessed. We're grateful for every day.


  1. Wonderful article and I totally relate to it. I would add just one thing and that's I'm doing things around the house so that they last until I painting the house, installing flooring, etc. I don't want to have to do those things when I'm ninety if I live that long. All your other points are right on. Loved it. Pat

  2. Dear Dr. Kathy, so glad to have reconnected with your website. And I love having you visit mine. Wow, this post rings home for me. I retired at 59 so I have been retired for 10 years, but during 8 of those years I was a full time caregiver to my mom (the reason I retired early.) She has been gone a year and a half now, so true retirement still seems new to me. But all your points ring home. I tried to pick one that was most relevant, but couldn't. They all hit the mark. But the last point ... "incredibly blessed" and "grateful for every day" are spot on for me as well. I know too many peers who did not make it to this stage in life ... so whatever the limitations lined up ahead of me, I am grateful for today and the days in the past that I have had and some did not.


  3. I enjoyed this post, Kathy... Some of it applies to us --and some of it doesn't... Our situation is so different (of course, ALL of us are unique and different). George and I didn't meet until we both turned 59.. We are making the MOST of these golden years together... I never dreamed I would get up at 5 a.m. each morning just to take a walk... Exercise and eating healthy is SO important to us.. We want to live as long and take in this life TOGETHER (we are inseparable) for as long as we can. SO--I am living a retiree's dream (that many don't get to do)... We will both continue to Go-Go-Go as long as we are able (travel, hike, walk, grow flowers, etc.) knowing that there are no guarantees in life (thinking of your friend, Theo)... Life can change QUICKLY and no matter how healthy and happy one is, we just don't know the future... In the meantime though, we will keep on LIVING life to its fullest.


  4. There is a lot to your post. I eased into retirement full of plans and expectations--very few of which turned into a reality. The unexpected loss of my husband was a major fork popping up in the road I had seen shining straight ahead of me. I have learned the important thing is to keep on going and to keep on growing. I find purpose and appreciate each day as it comes. I still have plans, but I am not so attached to them -- much more flexible and much more attentive.

  5. I can identify with all your points. But an all nighter? I haven't pulled an all nighter since 1972! Sorry to hear about Theo, but it sounds like he's making strides (probably because he does have good eating and fitness habits) and I wish him all the best.

  6. Kathy, as one on the early end of the retirement game, this post gives me much to contemplate. Right now it's still the "good times" but I can see how with time all that can change and in a heart beat. I laughed when you mentioned the appliances because I got my washer, dryer, fridge and dishwasher 21 years ago when I moved into my house -- and have a sinking feeling they will all break within a week of each other. (On the other hand, I've had my microwave since I bought it new in the mid 1980s. Go figure!)

    Your words are wise in reminding us that things inevitably change as we move forward. Of course, we know this but it's so easy to forget. I love the "Do It Now." I'm definitely into that one (apart from new appliances -- yet). The Goodwill bags, the major repairs, all as we go along because as Theo's case so poignantly emphasized, you never know.

  7. I appreciated your post so much. We are in year 3 and I sometimes feel a little badly that some of those travel dreams and volunteering at Lighthouses up the Coast trips, have not panned out --we changed our minds!!! We still take smaller trips,and we'll be spending a week visiting my husband's youngest brother and his wife, to share their week vacation with them at the Jersey shore! Not as "exotic" as some of the trips we had thought about, but really really satisfying to spend time with loved ones,having fun! We even moved to a mountain town and had to move back (changed our minds again!!) and that was a bit of an ordeal, but, retirement really is something you have to just dive into head first, and live it, to see what you really want.. Like you,I am very grateful,every single morning when I wake up and see yet another sunrise.. thanks for sharing...

  8. I can identify with a lot of your post. I think the greatest thing about retirement for me is the lack strict structure and far less living by the clock. Sure there is still some structure but the amazing freedom to set priorities for each day is for me, blissful. I enjoyed my years working but am enjoying these leisure years so much more. And yes, there are the adjustments we have to make in what we want to do as opposed what we can do but there are so far, satisfying alternatives.

  9. Retired in June of 2009 from of gardening and identify with 4 a.m. wake-up mornings. Imagine my pleasure at discovering after 40 years that there is no such hour. as to hearing aids, I wear 2 now --you can't sit on loud machines for decades without them coming back to bite you in your ears. My Humana medigap gave me a generous discount on hearing aids --with tinnitus-masking function-- so I only left half a fortune at the audiologist's instead of a whole one. Something folks should look into before selecting a Medicare supplement. Excellent post, Dr. McCoy.

  10. We do encounter limitations, but I'm a lifelong learner so I take up other things. We won't always be able to travel so we are doing it now. I am spending more time writing. I would never have guessed we'd have a small winter place in Tucson, but for now it is exactly what we need. I don't think we'll sell our Seattle home, though. There's always summer!

  11. Oh, yes! You have summarized what we are all experiencing in retirement.

  12. You are so real!
    At 58, I'm probably a babe in this group, but I understand all of what you've said, though I'm not there yet.
    However, the deaths and the health issues have been happening (friends and acquaintances of mine and my husband's). It is ringing loud and clear - that ones life has to be lived according to how each individual feels and not based on the expectations of others.

  13. What an excellent post. Some health issues are inevitable though healthy lifestyle habits make a difference on our comfort level over the years. Things are increasingly more expensive than most of us anticipate. I am grateful and it is a very individual experience. Excellent post.

  14. I especially agree with the part about being grateful. My husband and I are so happy to be able to do what we want with our days and evenings. And our dog keeps us getting up early as he loves a walk at 6 a.m.