Retirement Isn't a Time to Retreat. It's a Time to Have Choices and Stay Active

At every age, including post-retirement, a fulfilling life needs to include continuing to make a difference: at home, in the community, in the world, somewhere.

When you think of getting old, what do you worry about? Many of us worry about the same things: getting ill or incapacitated, running out of money, losing our vision, missing out on experiences on our “bucket list,” dying.

What worries me perhaps more than anything is: becoming irrelevant. I make no claim to being a huge mover and shaker in my community, let alone the country or the world. But I do make a difference in my own way, always have, at whatever age, wherever I’ve lived. I hate to think about coming to the point where I no longer matter — where I don’t have any real impact on the places or people around me.

Opening doors

Have you ever entertained such thoughts? Such fears? Being relevant doesn’t have to mean staying connected with our current profession. We can reach a stage of life where we prefer to close one door and open another — one that directs us toward something new that we’re passionate about, or that we’ve neglected for years due to the demands of work and family.

The point is either to stay active in what we know or open that new door, because doing neither can lead to boredom, intellectual and physical decline and, yes, irrelevance. When I think of staying relevant, I picture my father, now 94, visually impaired from macular degeneration, but otherwise, for his age, in reasonably good health.

After a career as an electrical engineer and technical college instructor, he indulged a lifelong interest in trees. He started by growing several varieties from seed in a makeshift greenhouse in his basement, then planting the seedlings in the yard and nurturing them.

From there, he moved on to donating trees to his home community for parks and street sides and to creating an arboretum at a nearby nature center. Untold numbers of mature trees now stand because of him, and certificates on his apartment wall attest to his contributions. Beyond that, he still crafts objects out of wood, writes letters to the editor and takes an active role in his retirement community. Tree-planting had nothing to do with his work career, yet was highly relevant to him and others.

The leisure trap

Many of us are trained to think of retirement as a time of leisure — for coffee get-togethers with friends at a restaurant, for card playing, golfing, fishing, traveling. All that is fine of course, but many retirees find, to their sorrow, that those things alone don’t make for a rewarding life.

Mitch Anthony, in his book The New Retirementality, argues that retirement is not a finish line. Unfortunately, we’ve been brought up to believe that it is. Many of us look forward to it the way as kids we looked forward to summer vacation. Just think — a vacation that doesn’t end! And yet I can recall in the waning days of a few summers getting hopelessly bored.

Anthony takes that concept a bit further. In a retirement without active engagement, he observes, first we become bored, and then we become bor-ing. And maybe in a way, boring is another word for irrelevant.

Life examples

In one chapter, Anthony tells of a rancher who visited a café where retired folks gathered to chat over coffee and tell stories. He noticed after a couple of weeks all the stories were reruns: that the people didn’t keep themselves fit and complained about their health. “I decided,” he reports, “that I didn’t want to be bored to sickness and eventually death, and there was no way I could endure all those reruns, so I gave up any fantasy I ever had about fully retiring.”

A 70-year-old attorney observes, “I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon with my retired friends who have become ill and/or died a short time into their retirement. The physical malady almost always seemed to be preceded by a mental one — boredom. They were disengaged from the part of their being that gave them satisfaction their entire life.”

The classical retirement model possibly made sense generations ago when life expectancies were shorter — it was a reward and a needed rest from a life of hard work. Today, if we retire at age 60 or 65, we likely have a good number of years left. For the good of our communities and ourselves, it behooves us to use them productively.


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