One of my good neighbors and I were chatting on the phone. You know how that goes– one topic leads to another and, before you know it, you’ve covered everything from recipes to politics, gardening to retirement, the flu epidemic to wind farms. I wish I could record such conversations because they often leave many things unfinished and, if I could follow them through to their conclusions, I’d probably get a month’s worth of columns out of one conversation.
One of the subjects I’ve discussed at greater length with her as well as other friends is the idea of retiring without a plan for what comes next. Too many people, especially men, seem to think that when they retire, that’s it . . . there’s nothing more to do. They stay home, they watch television, they have no hobbies or outside interests to keep their minds and their bodies busy. They expect their wives to accommodate their constant presence and expectations. They vegetate, they petrify, they are bored. Far too many of them die within a few years of retirement. Literally bored to death.
An attorney friend once told me that he’d noticed his male clients who retired in their mid-sixties, in good health at the time, often developed life-threatening illnesses within a year or two. Those, he had noticed, were the ones who took the word retired seriously and more or less withdrew from active lives, uninvolved with others and with no consuming interests. Many of those died within three years. But he had also noticed that those men who remained busy with part-time jobs or volunteer work, or who devoted serious time and effort to hobbies, stayed healthy and continued to learn and grow, serving the community, pursuing active social lives, staying involved with other people and worthwhile interests.
Seems obvious, doesn’t it?
As I told my children as they approached maturity, if you are going to have to work most of your life, you had jolly well better be doing something you like. And, even though doing it well involves long hours and sometimes more energy than you think you can muster up, it should never, never be allowed to become your main purpose in life. Your job is what makes it possible for you to have a life, to provide for your family, to give you a role in your community. It is a part of your identity and the source of much of your self-esteem and the respect you receive from others. It is important, yes, but it should not be the only important activity in your life.
Almost all jobs have life-spans, like everything else. When your job comes to an end, there’d better be something else to take its place, to fill your time, occupy your mind, to give you purpose, maybe even to provide a bit of income or admiration from others along the way. If you are fortunate enough to have an occupation with no age limits, no strict retirement policy, nobody to tell you it’s time to move over and let someone else do it, you’re fortunate. But not so fortunate that you don’t need to prepare for retirement anyway. The physical and mental limitations that inevitably arrive as the years add up are bound to slow us down, or stop us from continuing. At that point, we shouldn’t have to thrash around in search of something worthwhile to do. We should have something already in place that will be challenging, interesting, satisfying and worthwhile. And, we should be glad the time has arrived that we can spend our time and energy doing it.
Doctors and therapists have come up with more than enough physical and mental exercises to keep our bodies functioning and our brains from becoming atrophied, but do you want to live that sort of mechanical life? Work crossword puzzles, solve math problems, do jumping-jacks and lift weights. Spend two hours a day following that regimen Now what? Wouldn’t you rather be writing a book, planting an herb garden, teaching a class, carving a picture frame, accompanying a bunch of kindergarteners on a field trip, learning to play chess, painting a picture, playing in a golf tournament?
I’m not just talking about men here, I’ve known several women who managed their homes, children and jobs efficiently for many years. One day, they find that their children no longer need them, the job has disappeared overnight, and the housework is too boring to mention. While retired men often have wives at home, retired women too often do not. This means they don’t have someone to share with or even to care for, which can be a second career in itself. Although women tend to lead more multifaceted lives and are better prepared to cope with retirement, they still need to have something planned for their retirement years. Don’t put it off any longer.