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.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Rescued Animals, Enduring Love

One of the most uplifting stories coming out of Sochi has been the rescue by Olympic athletes and others attending the Games of the many stray dogs hanging around Olympic venues hungry both for food and human attention. And a Russian billionaire has contributed money to make a local animal shelter possible where animals may be rescued rather than exterminated, as they were just prior to the Games.

One frequent online observation, of course, is that it's fine to rescue dogs from Russia, but that there are many wonderful animals -- dogs, cats, rabbits and others -- waiting in American shelters for people to love and cherish them and, all too often, they die waiting.

But sometimes there is a miracle, a perfect match, a chance meeting that gives a sweet animal a whole new life. And each story is an inspiration.

I thought about such miracles as I was writing my upcoming book "Purr Therapy" about the two cats -  Timmy and Marina -- that I used occasionally in psychotherapy to comfort or calm anxious patients. I found Timmy and his brother Gus (who is still a sweet and loving presence in our home) and Marina, all rescue animals, when I wasn't looking for a cat and with these very special cats came incredible joy.

The latest inspiring story, however, comes from  my friend Pat Hill, whom I have known and loved since we were in kindergarten and who still lives in our California home town of La Canada Flintridge, near Pasadena. Pat is a wonderfully active woman who will celebrate her 69th birthday on St. Patrick's Day. She frequently takes brisk walks around the Rose Bowl -- with throngs of other local residents -- and it was during one of these walks a few months ago that she had a life-changing encounter: a matted, limping Calico cat streaked out of the bushes, through the crowd of walkers and straight to Pat as if she had been waiting impatiently for her to appear.

Pat knelt down and petted her. The cat rubbed against her and purred. She was thin. She had leaves and brambles in her fur. And she looked at Pat with eyes both loving and pleading.

Pat sat back on her heels, still stroking the cat, and thought for a minute about what to do. She wasn't looking for a cat. She already had two cats -- male and female siblings from a feral litter found in a friend's carport storage area not quite six years ago years ago. But this one.... She sighed. How could she leave this one behind? She felt the ribs poking out from the matted fur. She scooped her up and headed for her car. The cat leaned against her, purring.

She quickly began to change the cat's prospects: a bath, a flea treatment, a trip to the vet's where she found that the cat was in her early teens with a non-communicable health problem. She had been a pet until, most likely, she was thrown away by an owner who couldn't afford to treat her health concerns. Or perhaps she had survived a beloved human companion and was simply left behind after her former home was emptied and sold. The sad circumstances behind a loving cat going from cherished pet to homeless will always be a mystery. But, at some point, she had ceased to matter to someone.

She began to matter immensely to Pat as medical treatment, good nutrition, the company of other well-loved (and increasingly less wary) cats and, most of all, Pat's loving care gave her hope and a whole new life.

Part of that new life is a name: Amelia Rose, the latter, of course, in honor of their meeting place at the Rose Bowl. And lovely Amelia Rose -- or AR for short -- has quickly established herself as a cherished member of the family. She is the sweetest, most affectionate cat Pat has ever known. And she is dearly loved and treasured -- for however long she may live.

It's a reminder that we sometimes meet the greatest loves of our lives -- both human and animal -- when we least expect. And taking a chance and saying "Yes" to an animal in need of a loving home isn't just good for the stray cat or dog, but may be a true blessing of love to the person who reaches out and embraces a very special little life.

My dear friend Pat Hill and Amelia Rose

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Quiet Celebration of Love

On Valentine's day, we often think of love stories  -- our own and those of others who inspire us with their loving resilience.

Today, my thoughts are with two recently married couples a generation -- and a world -- apart in their experiences.

I got news of both marriages by email and Facebook -- a 21st century way to spread joyous news and wedding photos.

The most recently married is the couple with the longest relationship: Chuck Wibbelsman and David Hyman have shared their lives for 35 years.  They have had joyous times, fun times traveling and darker times when illness intervened or when home remodeling challenged their patience and sanity. They've been loving and supportive of each other through the years as Chuck's career as a doctor thrived and as David made a successful career shift from marketing to real estate.

In the early years, their relationship was private, almost secret, due to families slow to accept their sexual orientation and to public sentiments at the time. Chuck, especially, kept his private life quiet as he built his career as a nationally known adolescent medicine specialist/pediatrician.

Chuck had grown up in a strongly religious Catholic family in Cincinnati and went to Catholic schools through college. He worried quietly about his attraction to men, but quickly dismissed such feelings with the rationalization that he just hadn't met the right woman yet. He married right after his graduation from medical school but the marriage, arranged in haste and coinciding with Chuck's long hours as a medical intern, ended after less than a year.

Chuck and I met several years later -- forty years ago -- and shared love, many good times and a dream to build a future together, professionally and personally. The professional part of the dream came true with a classic, best-selling book (The Teenage Body Book) and several other books on which we collaborated over the years. But our romantic relationship ended when Chuck realized, at age thirty, that he was, indeed, gay. I was shocked and heartbroken when he moved to San Francisco with a man he had met while we were still a couple. But we continued our work together and when I married Bob, Chuck was there at our wedding, wishing us the best.

And we wished him the best when he met David two years later. David, too, had come from conservative roots. He was the only child of Jewish parents in upstate New York, growing up burdened with many expectations. He had a loving relationship with his mother, who died of cancer when he was 18, and a somewhat more difficult relationship with his father who loved him dearly, yet struggled to understand and accept who David was. A quiet man with exquisite manners and taste, David proved the perfect partner for the ebullient, outgoing Chuck.

David Hyman (l) and Chuck Wibbelsman (r)
And yet, as the years went by, marriage never seemed a possibility. They were faithful to each other and loyal  -- as any loving couple would be. And, until recently, they seemed resigned to having a relationship that would be mutually cherished, but never recognized legally.

When I was talking with Chuck two years ago, telling him about the wonderful wedding my friend Tim's son, actor Stephen Schellhardt and his spouse, actor Devin DeSantis, had just celebrated in New York, he looked wistful. The wedding, with just close friends and family, was both intimate and elegant. Their dear friend Jessie Mueller, now starring with great acclaim in Broadway's "Beautiful", sang at their ceremony. And Stephen's dad Tim wept with joy as he gave a toast.

Stephen (l) with Devin as Tim toasts them with love and tears

It made me remember the time when Stephen officially came out to his family when he was 14 and his family embraced him with love and acceptance. At the time, Tim told me that two thoughts had occurred simultaneously when he heard Stephen's news. His first thought was "Oh, please don't anyone hurt him!" quickly followed by "I hope he finds someone wonderful to love." And now that Stephen and Devin had found each other, their families celebrated with love and joyful tears.

Chuck had tears in his eyes as he listened. "What a different time this is," he said quietly. "What a whole different experience those two have had -- coming out and being accepted by their families right away and having this wonderful wedding with their parents there, celebrating with them. I'm so happy for them...."

It is, indeed, a different kind of love story for these two younger men. Stephen and Devin came out at a much younger age. They had the support of friends and family members as their relationship grew in the years before their marriage. Their lives and successes are much more public as their acting and singing careers flourish.

They recently serenaded Broadway legend Audra McDonald at a theatre community tribute to her.

Stephen Schellhart (l), Audra McDonald, Devin DeSantis
And currently, they're both enjoying star turns in musical revivals at major theaters in Chicago: Stephen starring as The Master of Ceremonies/Emcee of "Cabaret" at the Marriott Theatre and Devin starring as Dr. Frankenstein in "Young Frankenstein" at the Drury Lane Theater.

Stephen as the Emcee in "Cabaret" at the Marriott Theater
Devin (r) as Dr. Frankenstein in "Young Frankenstein" at the Drury Lane Theater

Recently, as both have garnered fantastic reviews in their respective shows, The Chicago Tribune spotlighted their loving and solid relationship in an article about them being each other's leading men.


This would have been unthinkable back in the day when secrecy, double lives and fear of exposure prevailed.

But times have been changing for quite some time, even for couples whose relationships were shrouded in secrecy during their younger years.

When Chuck recently was lauded for his work as a physician at Kaiser Permanente, the organization recognized David as his life partner and included him in the tribute. It was, at once, a small gesture of respect -- and a huge step forward.

And yet older couples, people whose lives have been lived well, but largely out of the public spotlight, quite often still feel most comfortable with quiet, private celebrations.

When gay marriage was once again legal in California, Chuck and David thought "Why not?" At this point in their lives, they wanted their wedding to be a quiet thing, a private commitment, in tune with the quiet, but profound love that has blessed their lives for over three decades. So one Tuesday last month, they met at City Hall in San Francisco and, in a ceremony witnessed only by one of Chuck's co-workers,  a favorite fellow physician, they were married -- announcing the event afterwards to friends and family.

Chuck, witness Alison Niederer and David on their wedding day
It was quiet. It was huge. It was a long-time coming. After 35 years together, it was an incredibly sweet moment -- and victory -- for a loving, devoted couple.

Happy Valentine's Day to all couples whose mutual devotion has kept love alive for all the days and years of their relationships.

And special good wishes to Chuck and David, Stephen and Devin for showing us that it isn't the gender of the person one loves that matters as much as the fact that one is willing and able to share a lifetime of love with another.