During our working life, most of us look forward to retirement with mixed emotions.
The optimist in us dreams of a life of freedom, flexibility and fun. Freedom from drudgery of daily commutes, from frictions at work with bosses and colleagues, and from deadlines and disappointments that inevitably go with the daily grind. Flexibility in the form of getting up late in the morning, traveling as often as we desire, or watching movies whenever we want to. And fun in the form of leisurely walk in the woods, enjoying time with family and friends, and pursuing long-neglected hobbies with gusto. Basically, the optimist in us thinks of retirement as the time when you can “do what you want to do, when you want to do it, where you want to do it, and, how you want to do it." (Catherine Pulsifer)
On the other hand, our inner pessimist suffers from a deep undercurrent of insecurity and uncertainty. This self-doubting side worries about our ability to make ends meet in the absence of a steady paycheck. It wonders if our savings will carry us through a long retirement, especially if we suffer a major health problem. We imagine a life without excitement, without accomplishments and recognitions, without competition and rush of adrenaline. We fear of a life filled with boredom and devoid of any purpose. What are we going to do with the all the free hours in hand, if we don’t go to work? Who will take care of us when we are old, feeble and fragile? Questions after questions add to our unease and anxiety about retirement.
Most of my friends are retired, and a few others are close to retirement. Not surprisingly, when we meet socially, retirement is the elephant in the room that does not go unnoticed. As soon as we greet each other with the usual, non-committal “how are you”, we open the door to a long discussion on diabetes, acid reflux, knee surgery, gout and a whole lot of other physical ailments. That invariably leads to topics like Social Security, Medicare, insurance coverage for pre-existing illnesses for folks nearing retirement, and rising health care costs. We don’t discuss matters relating to personal finance (even older folks avoid such topics in social gatherings). But we do talk about where and how we may live when we get really old. Would it become necessary to move closer to our children’s homes? Is moving to an assisted living facility an inescapable reality for those who will need long-term care? Clearly, my friends don’t think that retirement is a bed of roses. Some even admit publicly that they are somewhat bored with all the free time at their disposal.
But most, if not all, of my retired friends travel often, either for leisure or to see children in other parts of the country, and many love to spend time with family and friends. Some draw satisfaction from involvement in community organizations while some never get tired of watching movies or football games on TV. A few pursue hobbies like photography while others re-discover their love for literature or theater.
In summary, some of my friends are enjoying sunny days on the Golden Pond. For others, days on that serene lake are more cloudy than sunny.
Retirement is a serious business.
Hundreds of books, thousands of articles and millions of words have been written on the subject. Financial planners, insurance agents, health care professionals, social scientists, and politicians of all stripes and color have legitimate interest in this field, and they have freely shared their thoughts through books, magazines and newspapers.
Although all my friends are professionals of one sort or another, they are not experts on the serious side of retirement. Neither am I. But, after participating in many dinner-table discussions, I decided to reflect on the subject of “happiness in retirement” with a close friend. We asked ourselves: What does one need for a happy retirement? If I were to use management lingo, that question could be re-stated to sound more heavy duty: What are the critical success factors for a happy retirement?
We dared not go on-line to see how the professionals answer this question. We were afraid that we would get stuck with the trees and not see the forest.
Here is the answer that we, two amateurs, equipped only with own life experiences and informal, non-scientific dialogs with friends, came up with.
That is the codified version of the answer my friend and I worked up.
Health, Funds, Family, Friends, Hobbies – in that order. Two H’s bookending three F’s. The basic ingredients for happiness in retirement captured with five letters of the alphabet.
Let me elaborate.
PT Barnum once said, “The foundation of success in life is good health”. That statement applies to all phases of life but good health is more critical in retirement than in earlier stages of our physical growth. As we age, our ability to repair and renew ourselves slows down and our resistance to invading pathogens decreases. Not surprisingly, retirees and other older members of the society are more prone to illnesses than their younger counterparts. And illnesses, chronic or acute, rob us of strength and vitality, and our interest in life diminishes. In some cases, that can even lead to depression. So, good health is the first ingredient for a successful retirement.
The importance of money in retirement was captured well by Tennessee Williams: “You can be young without money but you can’t be old without it.” The second biggest source of anxiety during retirement, after personal health, is the availability of adequate funds for the long haul ahead. Do I (and my spouse) have enough to live on for the remainder of our lives? What if we run out of money? Will we be unwelcome burdens on our children? It is extremely important to address these questions before retiring from work. If the answers are ambiguous, it would be advisable to continue working and saving until the needed savings are in place. A retirement full of financial insecurity is likely to be full of anxiety as well.
A happy family life holds the third key to an enjoyable retirement. In this context, family means not just the spouse but also children, grandchildren and other relatives who are near and dear to the retiree. If a retiree sees and feels happiness around him on a regular basis, that positive energy can permeate his life as well. If, on the other hand, he is confronted with family discord on a recurring basis or worries about a daughter struggling to make ends meet or a grandchild with a developmental issue, he is likely to be tense and unhappy.
Good friends can significantly enhance the quality of life of a retiree. They can not only provide enjoyable company in good times but also act as dependable crutches for emotional support in times of need. Friends who are trusting and not judgmental, friends who share similar interests and views, and friends who are willing to offer a helping hand, are worth their weight in gold. We should actively cultivate and nurture such friendships before a sudden need for “good friends” arises.
Last but not the least, active engagement in hobbies can be a great slayer of the boredom demon. Activities that can entertain and enrich, without involving others, are the best kinds of hobbies to fill free time and kill boredom. Photography, gardening, hiking, jogging, reading, writing, exercising, and similar activities fall in this desirable, “can do it alone” category. Helping community organizations or getting involved in charitable services can also be a satisfying activity.
You may have noticed that I tried to give a few tips on how to address the last two “success factors” (friends and hobbies) but did not do so for the other three (health, funds or family). That’s because there are no simple, universally applicable pathways to ensuring good health, accumulating adequate funds or maintaining happy family life in retirement. For example, accumulating enough funds for a worry-free retirement may require not only good luck in jobs and career but also carefully planned saving and investing programs throughout working life. And what may work well for one may not apply to another. In some cases, professional guidance may be desirable, if not necessary.
Let me end with a couple of observations about some unique aspects of retirement for immigrants like myself (and most of my friends).
First-generation immigrants, especially from Asian countries, carry a higher level of uncertainty and anxiety than native-born Americans. Many of us came to this country with extremely limited resources and without an established support network. We may have done well through hard work and perseverance but it is not easy for us to forget our days of hardship and loneliness. Those memories may haunt us in our retirement years as old, familiar ghosts. We must recognize that danger and remind ourselves repeatedly that we can now depend on support networks of family and friends that we have created over the years – and we can fall back on Social Security and other programs when such needs arise.
We were also raised in a culture that values family ties and obligations. We are expected to respect our parents and elders, and in turn, they are expected to protect and help us through good times and bad. For our children, we also try our best to leave behind as much of a legacy as we can. Many of us carry that value system to our life in our newly adopted home country. Unfortunately, that can lead to some perverse situations. I have seen several cases where a retired couple skips vacations and other fun things in life to save money for their children who are very affluent on their own merits and do not need any legacies from their retired parents! Again, we must recognize and avoid such unnecessary frugality -- and enjoy our days on the Golden Pond.
Let go of that overblown sense of duty and those never-ending chain of worries. Think of the good things you have accomplished in life and the good things yet to come. Let the sun break out through the clouds and warm your body and soul as you float lazily on that serene Golden Pond.
I wish to thank my friend, Rama Haldar, for our many enjoyable and insightful discussions on retirement issues.
(Posted June 1, 2018)
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Comments received from Debu M. on June 2, 2018:
"I enjoyed reading your thoughts on retirement. It is excellent. Short, thoughtful, well analysed from Bengali experiences, and suggestions for fellow Bengalis (I think you wrote about men, not women)...
You have not deliberately addressed two issues: religion and death. I can add another item: Calcutta or Bengal. And your writings reflect more of the retirees in the near-term when they are still able to travel with ease, enjoy a good meal and participate in a political discussion (Bengali men's favorite). The dynamics change as they get near 80, say after 75. This will be another interesting article you may write: how the retirees change with time.
Here are some comments (from my first generation relatives and college friends) on the third item. I saw them living (mentally) in Calcutta – they lived and worked in the U.S., but their hearts, their likes and dislikes, their wishes were all in terms of (their experiences, their values in) Calcutta. For example, a Bengali singer in NJ (I know her) cannot be admired until she is recognized in Calcutta! Bengalis cannot judge her on her own. Their lives were centered on (more for women than men here) when they would be back to Calcutta again - for a visit. I understand the emotions and the love they feel there (and missing here). Finally, in their retired years, they lament they could not go back to Calcutta often. As time moves on further, this becomes depressing and sad. [This is true for all Indians.]
Religion. I leave it for you to think about.
Death. This has always been a favorite topic for Bengalis. Unspoken, rather un-debated, this looms larger and larger in the retired years. What are your thoughts on this topic? In your observations, does it have an effect on the retired life?
I hope this will generate more discussions with you and among other Bengalis."
Comments received from Prabir B. on June 1, 2018:
"I read your article with intense interest. I took a dip in the Golden Pond after reading the article. That made me feel really good.
Regarding the second F, Family, many of the immigrants of our time do not have any other family member other than spouse. Especially those who never had any children of their own (I know 2 families like that). So, I will say "Friends" will be the third most important item in our retirement for enjoying and appreciating the Golden Pond.
Very well written article. Please keep writing."
Happy Days on the Golden Pond?