“This isn’t what I thought my golden years would be.” My father’s words echoed in a time-lapse soundtrack that played back regularly in the recesses of my memory. He was a self-made, hardworking man, not given to complaining or griping, even when he had good cause. So his oft-repeated remorse about his disappointing golden years haunted me.
I inherited his propensity for hard work, but I didn’t give much thought to retirement until I approached my mid-50’s. While in college, I had started working for the federal government as an intern. That led to a full-time job upon graduation, then a series of promotions up the career ladder. By the time I turned 55, I had been working almost 35 years and was eligible for full benefits under a generous retirement system. To top it off, the government was looking to whittle its ranks and offering buy-outs to those who qualified.
With my father’s words to guide me, I took a plunge. Besides his inclination toward hard work, I had also inherited his entrepreneurial spirit. Starting a business of my own was a dream, and I was getting a chance to make it happen. I knew how lucky I was. Few people have great pensions these days, and I was able to use mine to start a second career at a fairly young age.
My government work involved communications and marketing for several federal agencies. That experience parlayed seamlessly into a consulting career focused on serving the public and non-profit sectors. I had all the fun of doing things I loved professionally and practically none of the frustration that comes with working in large bureaucracies, supervising staff and fighting Washington, DC, traffic every day. My commute became a short trip from one room to another in the house, sometimes still in my robe and slippers but more often in jeans and a tee-shirt.
Client meetings provided sporadic contact with the outside world. The extrovert in me was a little starved for attention, but the new-found introvert learned to relish quiet, uninterrupted time to think, research and write. Plus I could plan my time to suit my personal needs, working evenings or weekends if I wanted to take off during the week to spend time with family or friends.
I thought I was pretty lucky, and in many ways I was. My husband, a retired school teacher, and I had raised our children and were set to enjoy our golden years with travel and other activities that could easily fit into my part-time consulting business. And we had a good run of it for several years.
But my husband’s poor health caught up with us. Over the years he had been hospitalized several times for various ailments associated with his cardiovascular disease and a string of staph infections that proved near fatal on several occasions. Hospital visits became an irregular but continuing part of our lives.
In 2012 events began to snowball. Our daughter was getting married that fall. But three separate surgeries book-ended the wedding. Two surgeries proceeded the big day, yet my husband was back on his feet and ready to celebrate the marriage. The ceremony and reception were wonderful—everything parents could want for their daughter—but I could tell my husband wasn’t quite himself. Less than a week later, he was back in the hospital for another operation. By the end of the year, we were both ready for a rest. Business was slow, and I was in no hurry to restart my engines.
The following year started off well. My husband was doing better, and my business was slowly getting back on track. Our lives seemed to be moving in the right direction again. But summer brought grave—near fatal—illness once more. Another serious staph infection required two back-to-back surgeries and almost three months of hospitalization. With my life completely focused on his, business was the last thing on my mind. When my husband came home in the early fall of 2013, we thought we had turned the corner. But by the end of the year, he needed yet another operation. That brought the total count of surgeries to 14 over a 24-year period.
During all those years, I was becoming a stronger, more effective advocate for his health-care needs. Every time he went into the hospital, I learned more about how the system worked, how to get along with doctors and nurses, and how to make sure his needs were met. My years surviving, even thriving, in a federal bureaucracy paid off. So did my natural tendencies to work hard and fight hard, never give up and never settle for less than my goal.
Along the way, I had adopted as my motto the intractable but memorable words of Mother Jones, the patron saint of the coal miners, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” Her message inspired and prodded me. I kept on fighting and getting better at it.
I learned that successfully advocating for a loved one in the hospital requires determination, skill and know-how, mixed together with a dash of chutzpah—that wonderful Yiddish word meaning personal confidence and gumption.
Last year, with my husband finally getting stronger, I decided to turn my hard-won knowledge into something I could share with others. I decided to write a book, blog and speak about how to advocate for someone in the hospital. Communications, after all, is my profession. I love writing and speaking, sharing information and ideas and connecting with people.
I also love the idea of giving back. My husband and I have overcome some hurdles, but I have not lost sight of the ways in which I am lucky—a wonderful family, a good pension and great health insurance. None of these can be taken for granted today. So after all my years of government service, it’s in my blood to keep doing things worthwhile.
The book is shaping up to be a compendium of useful tips, insights and advice—not just from me but from a host of professionals who share their wisdom and expertise on how to get the best care for a loved one in the hospital. I hope it will help many others along the way.
I am now in the third chapter of my career—first federal employee, then small business owner and now an author, blogger and speaker. While I don’t see myself as old, I am officially in my golden years, and I hope they will continue to sparkle and shine.