July 1st, 2014

The retirement readiness test

The question I hear more and more often these days concerns when I’m planning to retire. Never mind that I’m the one doing most of the asking, but I hear it from friends and colleagues as well. It’s a stage of life thing, something my fellow baby boomers and I toss around in meandering conversations about life, work and our hopes and plans for our so-called golden years. My first response to this question was a glib, “When I meet my first happy retired person or after I’ve paid all my big bills, whichever comes first.” It didn’t take much reflection or the passage of too many months for me to realize that the big bills just keep coming so, if I ever plan to retire at all, I better start looking for a happy retired person.

With that I began my quest and, as I listened to the stories of retired friends and colleagues, I learned that retirement is both a challenge and an opportunity. The opportunity side of the equation gets most of our attention when we think of the chance to travel without counting our vacation days, without having to find coverage for our essential psychological duties and without being limited to times when our workload is naturally lighter. There are opportunities to spend more time with our families, to pursue other interests and simply to enjoy breakfast on the patio on a bright summer morning or to pull the covers over your head and scoff at the ice-covered roads you don’t have to drive to the hospital when the snowflakes fly.

The challenges of retirement are equally real though we don’t like to think about them. After the last balloon floats to the ceiling at the farewell party and the long-awaited big trip is tucked between the pages of the photo album, the retired person looks for something to do. Some plunge into all the household projects they had been putting off until they had more time, some get back to psychological work on a part-time basis and others become involved in volunteer activities, serving as museum docents, math tutors, or campaign workers for favorite causes or candidates. Activities like these help us meet the challenges of having long stretches of unstructured time at our disposal, challenges of keeping loneliness at bay and finding new sources of accomplishment and meaning.

On a recent three-day weekend, I decided to give myself a retirement readiness test by experimenting with a schedule that seemed to include the best elements of both an active professional life and time to use in any way I pleased. After rising when I was rested and enjoying the newspaper over a leisurely breakfast, retirement was looking pretty good. Then my wife left the house to do some errands and I was alone to get down to the business of doing whatever I wanted. There was a lawn to fertilize, a book to read, and a model ship to build. Accustomed as I have become to multi-tasking, I decided to do all three activities at once, setting up my shipbuilding board on the kitchen island, opening my book in the family room and filling the spreader with fertilizer on the back lawn.

Straining to see the small details on my model of a Dutch fishing boat, I managed a paint job that looked like the work of a second-grader, nothing like the museum quality models that my skilled friends in the boat world routinely turn out. While the paint dried, I applied the fertilizer, a new all-in-one mix that was supposed to fortify existing grass, nourish new growth, prevent the emergence of crabgrass, and kill weeds. Now it was time for the book, an interesting read that I wanted to share. You wouldn’t believe this plot, listen to this. But no one was listening. No one was there. The house was silent and empty. I will go back and fix the boat as soon as my eyes, now specialized through a kind of natural selection for writing long clinical reports in eight-point font, learn to adapt to a new kind of work. My once green lawn is now a patchwork of white spots. A bad case of fertilizer burn, the man said. It may or may not recover. Only time will tell.

I would have plenty of time if I was retired, time to dwell on the fate of my lawn, to watch as it turned white, blade by blade and hope for a miracle cure.

I could also improve my model shipbuilding technique and try my hand at a number of more ambitious home improvement projects. Now there’s a scary thought. Don’t get me wrong. Retirement sounds wonderful but I can’t help thinking how much better it would be if only it came a little sooner, say in our thirties or forties. Then we could spend that time with our children while they were still little and learn new skills while our vision was still sharp and our motivation high.

In my new world order, we would be paid for our retirement years, then return to work on a volunteer basis in our sixties, with all the wisdom, humility and compassion that only life can bring. All I need now is a viable political candidate to champion my cause, someone I can volunteer to work for when I retire. That day will come but not yet.

Alan Bodnar is a psychologist at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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