Retirement is a luxury our great great grandparents never dreamed of. Around the turn of the century, the average life expectancy was 47. People quit working only when they were too ill to keep going. Retirement for them signaled the end of life, not merely the end of working life.
Today, 70% of Americans will celebrate a 65th birthday, and the fastest-growing part of the population comprises those 85 and older. People spend more years in retirement than they do in childhood and adolescence combined. How to spend that time has become a very real concern.
Some people picture retirement as a time to slow down. But others see retirement as a time for increased activity.
As with any major life change, retirement brings its share of mental and emotional turmoil. Depending on how you deal with it, retirement can be an exciting time filled with new opportunities and challenges or a painful transition that brings boredom, lack of purpose and discouragement.
Staying active, living well
Research has shown that people who stay busy after retirement, with hobbies, active social lives or even part-time work, live longer and feel a lot better than those who are inactive.
Retirement is a time when some honest self-examination is essential. Think about the things that made you happiest before you retired. Now, look for ways to incorporate those things into your new life. For example:
- Keep working. A lot of people don't really retire at 65. Rather, they retire from a 40-hour work week to a shorter schedule. If you enjoy your job, why not keep doing it? Retired bankers and accountants, for example, find themselves in huge demand at tax time. They probably wouldn't dream of going back to the daily grind, but they enjoy using their skills — as long as they can do it on their terms.
- Let your hobbies blossom. One of the best aspects of retirement is finally having time to do all those things you always dreamed of doing, like reading more, completing a coin collection or raising exotic orchids. Didn't have hobbies before? Retirement is the opportunity to find some.
- Stay physically active. Studies have shown that people who keep their bodies moving after retirement — by gardening, playing golf or going to the gym a few days a week — live longer and have fewer health problems than those who opt for more sedentary lifestyles.
The importance of friends
The workplace does more than provide a paycheck. It's also where people tend to make most of their friends. Nearly all retirees find themselves missing the social scene for a while. If you don't make some adjustments, you may find yourself getting more and more isolated and alone — and loneliness is among the leading causes of depression in the elderly.
The social aspect of retirement is one in which women may fare worse than men. By the time a woman reaches 85, there are 100 women for every 39 men. But dating and romance aren't really the issues — although they're nice when you find them. What matters is having people of either sex to hang out with. This gets harder as people age, simply because more and more of their friends will move away, get ill or pass away.
If you don't have a lot of social contacts, senior centers are one of the better ways to meet people. Nearly every community has one or more of these centers. The activities are either free or provided at reduced cost. Even if you're shy about meeting new people, the programs offer a lot of structured activities. They're designed to help people feel comfortable.
Giving of yourself
Of the 45 million Americans who volunteer, about a third of them are elderly. Apart from having more free time, retirees have discovered that volunteering provides an excellent outlet for the skills and passions they've spent a lifetime developing.
A lot of retired nurses, for example, volunteer at hospitals and clinics. And the crossing guard at your local school may be a retired policeman who works with the local emergency-response team.
If you're not sure how to go about volunteering or if you'd like some direction on where to spend your time, the federal government has several programs that can help:
- The Older American Act provides an enormous range of services to elderly and low-income people — for example, providing home repairs, giving legal and financial advice and making visits to those who are homebound.
- Volunteers in Parks is a great program for folks with an interest in history and spending time outdoors. It puts people to work in national parks — not only in wilderness areas, but also at historical sites in cities and towns.
- SCORE (formerly called the Service Corps of Retired Executives) is also a useful organization. Did you work as a banker or accountant or own a small business? This program puts together teams of volunteer counselors who try to help small businesses run their operations more efficiently.