"How we react to works of art depends on who we are, where we are standing and when we encounter them." -- Margaret MacMillan, "War: How Conflict Shaped Us"

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Retirement: An Attitude Adjustment

As I mentioned in my last post, B and I have attended a series of retirement seminars in the past few weeks, hosted by our local senior citizens center called Founders Hall. The moderator told us that we would be covering every aspect of retirement, except for money: How to find new meaning in life. What to do with your time. Whether to stay in your old home, or relocate to a retirement mecca.

And yet, the most important lesson I took away from this week's seminar hit the question of money right on the head.

The lesson doesn’t involve any practical tips, like downsizing your living quarters or paying off your mortgage or starting to sell your old furniture on ebay or your new craft projects on Etsy. It involves an attitude adjustment.

When the moderator asked for questions or comments, or personal stories about how people handled retirement, one fellow stood up. He was in his mid-to-late 60s, dressed in casual, unremarkable clothes. He apologized, saying his wife was a volunteer at Founders Hall, so maybe he shouldn’t be talking. But he just wanted to add one thing to the discussion about starting a new life in retirement.

He told us that he had retired from a computer company about three years ago. He used to run a department, and he had a number of people reporting to him. He said he’d been with his company for almost 40 years and toward the end he made a pretty good salary. He confessed that he had spent most of it, on a house and new cars and travel and his kids. Yes, he had funded his retirement accounts, but when he retired he was still a little worried about having enough money to maintain his lifestyle throughout retirement.

But the real problem, it turned out, was that after he retired he felt disconnected. He had no purpose in life, no focus. For the first few months he would go with his wife to the grocery store and follow her up and down the aisles, until one day she leveled a look at him and said, “This has got to stop!"

Still, he didn’t know what to do. When he was working he had places to go, people to see, and a schedule to keep. Now he had nothing. When he was working, he had performance reviews, which gave him a kind of report card on his life. He got raises and promotions, and had the money to buy most of the things he wanted. His job had defined his life. He took some pride in telling people where he worked, and he "kept score" by how much money he made, how many people reported to him, as well as the money he spent on travel, cars and his house.

But now realized that he had to come up with a different way to define himself, and a different way to keep score. He considered taking up golf or fishing; but when he really thought about it, he realized that didn’t interest him.

He knew he had certain skills, and finally, prompted by his wife, he decided he could apply those skills to help people around town. So he talked to a friend, who suggested he attend a meeting of the men’s club, and that eventually led to Meals on Wheels. So today, he spends two afternoons a week delivering meals to senior citizens. He also found himself at the library last winter, helping seniors do their taxes. Then in the summer he checked out the Volunteer Match website, and was linked up to work with Habitat for Humanity.

Last year he and his wife sold their house and moved into a condominium. He was tired of taking care of his yard and repairing things around the house; and besides, with the kids long gone, he just wasn't interested in his house anymore. Instead, he was interested in spending time with his new friends and helping out around town. He and his wife don’t travel much anymore. They haven’t bought a new car since they traded in the family SUV for a Honda sedan almost ten years ago.

He doesn’t miss his house, or the travel. And he doesn’t have to worry about his finances anymore. Why? Not because he has more money; but because he spends less. Because now he defines himself not as a computer programmer and affluent member of the community, but as a volunteer who helps out other people in his community.

He keeps score not by how much money he makes and spends, but by how many people he has helped. “I think about what I want people to say at my funeral,” he said. “And I decided nobody was going to care how much money I made, or what my title was at work. I want them to talk about the people I have helped, and the impact I made on my community.”


Terra said...

That man has grasped a profound secret of enjoying retirement. He has improved his quality of life in the ways that matter, by helping others. I volunteer in a retirement home (yes, the people are older than retired me, ha ha) which I enjoy.

Tabor said...

I also discovered this truth, but since I was not a supervisor and my program was going to be phased out when I retired, I did not have to adjust to not being in charge. I still look for volunteer opportunities that will reward me. I do volunteer work that does not...but really would like something that does

Celia said...

This has been the story of my retirement as well. I was a program manager for software projects. I can't even imagine wanting to do that anymore. Volunteering has been very satisfying.

Anonymous said...

I have volunteered my entire life. It is just a way of life, everyone needs a person to talk to boost them up and I am particualary fond of itty bitty baby dolls (Babies) whose mothers are really stuck inside with them, we had no car for me I don't even drive, other people were nice to me, the babies need interaction and the mommas need some time to bathe and or shower and fix themselves up a little..they are so happy when I get to hold and play with their little ones, I feed them, and talk to those little babydolls and they get a real kick out of me..Priceless in my book, also itty bitty kitty cats abandoned, I dote at a no kill shelter the lady who runs it adores me I bring treats for her and some for the itty bitty kitty cats too, I hold them and pet them and clean up and help out, I try to find blankies for those little itty bitty kitty cats, the lady has tea with me and says she loves me a lot..I just keep plugging around each day, of course my hubs is retired and he joins a group of men way older than himself and they gamble a teeny tiny bit, but more important talk and try to save the worlds problems, they are old enough to be his dad who died in 1984 and he was never around growing up, these men have outlived all their siblings, moms and dads, their kids and grandkids are their pride and joy, many weddings and many funerals, they tell my hubs everything and he is only soon at the end of October 69 but wiser than most people the oldest of a huge brood with a mom who could barely do anything and a dad missing in action his and the others entire life, so he was the designated adult, he had to do everything, I spoil him rotten, October is ROCKTOBER in our home, cause he never really had a birthday until we married in may of 1974 and I spoiled him rotten as I do every year, I never got birthdays either, my mom died when I was young and my dad took to drink, social security was one check for me my brothers and my one sister and I could have gotten I think 50.00 a month to go to school (college) so work is what I did and plenty I did to get thru..Life is far toooo short to NOT DO
anything to help out our fellow man...your blog is wonderful you and your B sound like wonderful wonderful human beings, enjoy your retirement I know for sure my hubs and myself are!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com said...

Hi Tom! What a powerful post. Thank you. I agree that the single most important thing that any of us can do to approach retirement (or all of our life for that matter!) by figuring out what is REALLY important to us and how we want to define ourselves. I call that rightsizing but it doesn't really matter what you call it. I appreciate how he said, "“I think about what I want people to say at my funeral,” he said. “And I decided nobody was going to care how much money I made, or what my title was at work. I want them to talk about the people I have helped, and the impact I made on my community.” May we all be that SMART! ~Kathy

Anonymous said...

Well, that's one way to look at retirement. But, not everyone is cut out to be a social worker and volunteer.

Wisewebwoman said...

I do my bit and redefined myself a few years back and feel my business life is so much a dim memory, something that was so important at one point, LOL. I now find community is where I'm at, what can I do , rather than what can it do for me.

PS but I keep all my options open and still have dreams. Dreams too are important.

DJan said...

I've been retired for eight years now and have a very full life. I just returned from a writers' retreat and have plans to continue and develop my craft. I volunteer once a week and get a great deal of satisfaction from it, too. I like the attitude adjustment he made; it's essential for most of us. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Tom. :-)

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the majority of retirees (and I have been retired for only 3 years) did and do identify themselves with their work, their work family, and their work accomplishments. However, unless you work until they take you out with a sheet over your body, everyone will retire at some point. I have really struggled. My life was work, wife, and kids. Work is gone now--I was head of a state government agency, my wife still works (don't believe what you read that is best not to retire together) and the kids are now young adults on their own. I didn't have a hobby and while volunteering is giving back, most volunteer opportunities involve performing non-challenging, menial tasks like licking envelopes, shredding docs, etc. I would be interested in what those who don't have a hobby or volunteer do. $ is not my issue; but a feeling of loss is. Thanks readers.

Dr Sock said...

Tom, what a great post! I am sixty, financially able to retire, and my husband has been retired for a decade. I am on the threshold of retirement, and trying to decide when to do it. Like the gentleman you describe, I am very invested in my work, career, and work identity. I worry about making the transition to becoming retired person, and the loss of that identity and the social sphere of the workplace. It is reassuring to hear how this man found his way through volunteering and community involvement. Certainly something to think about.


John said...

Lovely post Tom and it resonates strongly for me. Having been a deputy head of a school I knew I would miss be at the centre of things and that teaching had defined my life. Unlike the chap in your post, my gave me lots of satisfaction and I knew that was something I would miss. Like your man I too trained for volunteer work which I am now doing on a regular basis. The absence of money in the volunteer role strangely makes the activity even more meaningful. Bottom line, having meaning and purpose in retirement is essential.