I was fortunate to work as a pharmacist until age 76. At that time I stopped counting pills, not to retire, but to take care of a family obligation and I also wanted to spend more time writing and building websites. I take stubborn pleasure in fighting with challenging computer code or installing new software and figuring out how to use it.
My work as a pharmacist was a blessing because it allowed me to peek into the lives of retirees, to better understand what traditional retirement was really like. I think I heard and saw it all. While some financially stable retirees were deliriously happy going on cruises, playing golf and hanging out with compatible seniors, quite a few were not satisfied with their lifestyle. More than a few unhappy seniors lamented, “Barbara, retirement is the pits”. Their dissatisfaction generally was not related to health issues; they were bored and many were running out of money, using the little they had to foolishly entertain themselves with Jack Daniels and gamble at the local casino.
Money was indeed a big issue. Many retirees did not plan well, if at all, for their retirement years. They retired assuming everything would be okay. After all, they had their Social Security income, some savings, and besides, after you retire you don’t need as much money, right? Wrong! There is a widely held misconception that when you retire not as much money is needed to live. That naive assumption has left many retirees pinching pennies and wishing they still had their old job.
I recall one woman telling me that when it came time for her to retire, she was ecstatic that she didn’t have to work anymore. She had worked all of her adult life doing work she didn’t really like so retirement felt like she hit the jackpot. Her only source of income was Social Security. She moved into a low cost senior apartment complex to save money and thought about how much enjoyment she would have hanging out with like-minded seniors who would help each other when needed.
It didn’t take long to discover that life in the Snappy Seniors Apartments was not what she imagined it would be. Instead of caring, supportive friends she found “packs” of women in fierce competition with each other for the attention of available men in the complex. There were parties reserved just for those in certain groups. She was dismayed to find that many residents simply did not want to leave their apartment, or have anyone visit them. Others were fearful of answering a knock on their door. She was desperate to find a different living arrangement and even thought about getting a job so she would have enough money to move to different place.
I told her how happy I was for her that she was thinking about getting a job. She laughed and assured me the thought of going back to work was just a fleeting aberration. She explained, “I worked hard all my life and I earned my retirement so I’m not going back to work.” That reasoning was not uncommon among financially strapped seniors. To me it didn’t make sense for anyone to be unhappy if it’s possible to improve their situation.
I think one reason many retirees don’t want to try to work again is because they don’t believe they are competent enough, and I understand why they may feel that way. I believe that once you internalize you are retired, brain cells start to atrophy because they are no longer required to function consistently at an optimum level. It’s the start of subtle but relentless premature decline. You know it’s happening and it’s frightening because you don’t know how to stop it. You get to a place where you keep thinking to yourself, ” I just can’t do it anymore.” It’s the old cliché “use it or lose it” in action. All of that said, I believe that if intervention is started soon enough it’s possible to improve the slowing mature mind with brain games, social support, exercise and an improved diet.
Another reason expressed by some women for not wanting to go back to work was “I’m too old now”. Not only did they believe they were too old to learn something new, they were convinced no one would hire them because of their age. While that assumption may have some validity, I believe that if you have something of value to offer an employer your age doesn’t matter. It has always made me angry that awareness of chronological age wields so much power over decisions we make about how to live our lives.
It was clear to me that issues faced by many retirees would have been avoided or mitigated had they planned realistically for the future they wanted, instead of just following tradition and allowing life to happen. It’s foolhardy to think that after retirement it will be easy to switch gears and start a more satisfying lifestyle after decline has begun to set in. Those who think not as much money is needed in retirement are sadly mistaken, in my opinion. Health care costs, food and energy costs are rising and will continue to do so. Relying on the government to help provide a decent lifestyle is delusional.
Now more than ever planning for the retirement years is something every working person must do. The lifespan has increased by 30 years. If money is in short supply early on, what will life be like in the later years? Assuming on-going mental and physical competence, in my opinion, plans that result in the greatest degree of happiness and satisfaction provide for lifelong growth and productivity. That’s the new retirement reality.