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.