Finding the good life in retirement

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Article Ethic of Life Seniors
Retirement may seem like a long vacation, but making the most of those post-career years still takes plenty of hard work.

There are dozens of reasons why David Schaller doesn’t regret retiring from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2007 and moving back to Tucson, Arizona, the city he grew up in. His mother had been living in that desert outpost alone, and Tucson had a sustainability consulting position open. And yet retiring to Tucson required leaving behind many aspects of his life in southeast Denver. It meant saying goodbye to friends he’d laughed and cried with for decades. It meant leaving his dynamic home parish, Most Precious Blood. And it meant walking away from his high-profile position as sustainability director for the EPA’s Denver regional office and transitioning to life as a retiree.

“I wasn’t prepared,” Schaller admits, sounding wistful. “I wasn’t prepared for the different level of things, from going from a big stage to a small stage. I was no longer surrounded by as many brilliant, inspiring people who thought about the kind of things I thought about. The community I’d been part of suddenly wasn’t there. I knew intellectually that was going to occur, that I’d miss those people, but when I turned around and they weren’t there, I wasn’t prepared.”

Schaller is not alone in feeling unprepared for retirement. Jack Hansen, coauthor of Shaping a Life of Significance for Retirement (Upper Room), says he realized that after high school he spent 12 additional years in higher education to get ready for his career as an engineer. But where was the training course for retirement? “A lot more needs to be done to prepare for retirement,” agrees Jerry Haas, Hansen’s coauthor and a retired Methodist minister. “Not enough people think about it as being a spiritual journey. We haven’t created a sacrament around it.”

When his own retirement was drawing near, Hansen knew he had to prepare for it. He enrolled in a program of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, a Nashville-based organization that offers spirituality workshops around the country, and it was there that Hansen met Haas, one of the program’s instructors. Hansen knew that, like Schaller, he would want to keep working part time as a consultant in his field. Haas was also dealing with his own challenges and hired a life coach to consult with him about the retirement-driven changes he was experiencing.

For each individual retiree, those changes will be different. Individuals must chart their own paths as they move from the identity they’ve built for themselves through years of work—police officer, teacher, lawyer, or sustainability director—to retiree. There’s no agreed-on preparation, and few spiritual guides are available for how to cope with the changes. People who may once have seen retirement as nirvana discover that an endless vacation doesn’t add up to happiness.

“Four thousand Catholics retire every day in the United States,” says Dr. Richard Johnson, a psychological clinician, counselor, and author of Creating a Successful Retirement: Finding Peace and Purpose (Liguori). He sees the need for spiritual education increasing as people grow older “because the spiritual pace quickens as we experience more loss, the driving force of all human growth.” Because of that, Johnson thinks the church should be doing far more to help retirees than it does. “No curriculum is being written; there’s no office in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on this,” he says. Instead, most retirement advice is about financial investments.

Retired, not expired

Johnson lists five major rewards that people get from working: money, time management, a sense of purpose, social interaction, and status. People still need those things in retirement, but they look at them differently and get them in different ways. None of those needs are met through watching television, and yet research shows that retirees spend twice as much time watching television as do working people—about four hours a day. “If I were to write a prescription for creating depression, that would be it,” says Johnson.

In contrast, many retirees still fulfill their basic needs and are happy; these people are far too busy to watch much television. Schaller, for instance, writes a weekly digest of sustainability developments. He’s active on several boards and volunteers with various sustainability initiatives. He counts sustainability as his life’s work, and he’s not done with it just because he retired from the EPA.

Other retirees have similar experiences. Bob Lowry retired from high-pressure work in the radio industry in 2001. Since then he’s involved himself in prison ministry, travel, family, and faith. He’s also discovered blogging: His blog, Satisfying Retirement, has drawn more than a million views and has given him the experience to write a couple books on finding satisfaction in retirement. “I didn’t even know what blogging was five years ago,” he says.

Sally Dittman retired in 1999 from her work as an elementary school principal in Michigan and now lives in Sun City Center, Florida. She’s president of an advocacy group that fights human trafficking, takes Spanish courses at the local community college, is active in her church, and travels to visit her children and grandchildren. “What surprised me about retirement is how I ever found time to work,” she says.

Dittman, Lowry, Schaller, and other retirees interviewed for this story have typically retired in a way that balances a mix of spending more time with family, more time on themselves, more time on spirituality, and more time volunteering. Others make the choice not to retire at all—some in more extreme ways than others.

John and Kathy Tucker, for instance, set off in their late 40s into what they thought might be five years of missionary work after successful careers in insurance and finance. That was 17 years ago—years that have blossomed into a full-time second career, far from their own adult children and still years from true retirement. Fifteen of those years have been spent in Cambodia.

Today, five jumbled miles from central Phnom Penh, the Tuckers sometimes spend early evenings on their front patio at their orphanage, watching dozens of Cambodian orphans playing volleyball and basketball, and riding their tricycles and bikes. “We look at each other and ask, ‘What were we thinking?’ ” John Tucker laughs.

But the attraction is obvious. “Children who are very sick come to us and a month later they’re riding bicycles,” he says. “We’re spoiled. The development people who put in wells and toilets don’t get to see immediate results like that. Our faith gets deeper and deeper.”

The Texas couple came to Cambodia as Maryknoll missioners when he was 50 and she was 47. Their orphanage, New Hope for Cambodian Children, with its 240 orphans (plus 1,400 HIV-positive children who live with their families), is one of the only places in Cambodia that welcomes HIV-positive orphans and provides services to infected children. “The good news is that the epidemic has peaked,” John Tucker says. “My long-term plan is to win and retire at age 80.”

In the meantime, the Tuckers supervise a staff of 140, raise $1 million annually, and recruit volunteers to teach and care for the children. During a trip back to the U.S. earlier this year, the Tuckers interviewed one 74-year-old California man who wanted to join the more than 50 volunteers working at the orphanage. While most European and Australian volunteers are younger, U.S. volunteers are typically between 55 and 70.

Last resort?

While it’s the rare retiree who goes all the way to Phnom Penh to fulfill their retirement—or nonretirement—purpose, Hansen says that in researching his book he didn’t interview anyone who found the other extreme, a completely leisure-oriented retirement, to be satisfying for the long term. “I wonder if that’s because God has created us for something different than that,” Hansen says.

One retirement option that often draws critical reviews from both experts and retirees alike is the “resort-style living” promoted by retirement community developers like Del Webb. “Daily life at these places is an extravaganza,” says an exasperated Johnson. “It’s all diversionary, taking people away from their primary life cause, their real work in the world at this stage in their lives.”

A visit to the Del Webb website does prove peculiarly unsettling. There are “villages” in Arizona, Florida, Texas, South Carolina, California, and beyond, all showing spectacular resort settings with emerald golf courses, inviting swimming pools, cathedral-like community rooms, and elegant patio tables lit with the rosy hues of sunset. It doesn’t take long to realize what’s wrong: Not one of the photos shows a single human being.

But how many of the 6 percent of retired Americans who live in such places really divert themselves with yoga, swimming, and golf all day? According to Dittman, the retired Michigan principal who says she loves the friendly, active Sun City community where she now lives, it isn’t as many as the advertisements might suggest. “I struggle to find time to golf,” she says. “There are people who are happy playing golf five days a week. But other people say that doesn’t cut it for them, they need more in their lives.”

Dittman, like many new retirees, found that she overcommitted herself when she first retired. Still, she’s an inveterate organizer and once again has reshaped her schedule in order to get her nonprofit group, the Sun City Center Community Campaign Against Human Trafficking, running smoothly. “It’s a passion,” she admits, not sounding at all sorry that she’s back to spending “countless hours” on a project. “But I won’t do that forever,” she says.

The challenge for most retirees is striking a balance, somewhere between full-time work on a volunteer basis and full days on the golf course. There needs to be time for visiting children, grandchildren, and friends, while also enjoying all the extra hours they can now call their own. It’s a balance that takes thoughtfulness and effort to achieve. Like Dittman, many retirees at first overcommit themselves to volunteering in the early months or years of their retirements. There’s a reason that happens.

Molly Srode, a retired hospital chaplain and author of Creating a Spiritual Retirement: A Guide to the Unseen Possibilities in Our Lives (SkyLight Paths), has found that retirees are keenly concerned with the question of how their lives can be meaningful now that they’ve left behind their work and the roles they fulfilled in their jobs. They worry about aging, the changes that come with it, and what their futures hold. “They’re asking, ‘Who am I now? Am I still worthwhile? How will I handle diminishing abilities?’ ” Srode says. “There are spiritual answers to all these questions.”

Srode urges people to remember that they are citizens of two worlds, both the physical and the spiritual. She sees keeping balance as key to spiritual health in retirement. “It doesn’t mean spending every minute helping others versus every minute absorbed in yourself and your own interests. It has to do with love: love for yourself, love for others, and love for God,” she says. “Once we understand that God is love, we can more easily put things in perspective.”

Haas emphasizes drawing on a supportive community, “whether it’s the saints present or the saints above.” He sees retirees in strong churches and neighborhoods being their own best support group, encouraging each other. Lowry hears from his readers that they share a similar experience after retiring. “It’s pretty common to have a honeymoon, then a struggle, and then a coming out the other end,” he says.

At that point, people often realize that retirement is a stage of life no different from the others, with one exception. “There’s a freedom you’ve never had before,” says Lowry. That struggle, though, can be hard. “When you stop working, there’s this giant sucking sound,” he says. People often scramble to fill up their hours.

Johnson counts respect for leisure as an important element in successful retirement. That’s balanced, however, with the need on the part of retirees to be thoughtful about what they’re doing with their remaining days.

One retirement doesn’t fit all

Vast differences exist among people who are reaching retirement age, whatever that age is. What they expect from retirement runs the gamut. No one’s journey is exactly like another, observes Missy Buchanan, another faith-based author of several books on aging. Some people retire at a time when they’re already ill; others experience years of vigor in retirement. There are people who retire in their 50s and others still at work into their 70s and beyond. “One 84-year-old might go ballroom dancing while another is in rehab following a stroke, having to relearn how to walk and talk,” Buchanan says.

“It’s so individual,” agrees Lowry. “It’s truly a unique process that depends on money and background. For those who have built their world around work, they’re not ready. You lose prestige, your sense of identity, your reason for being.”

At Jack and Susan Corrigan’s northwest Denver home, Jack grins irrepressibly at the memory of his retirement in 1994 at age 64. “I was absolutely delighted,” he says. Susan was more ambivalent. She delayed retiring from the doctor’s office where she’d worked as an X-ray technician until 1997. “It was time,” she concedes. Since then, their journey has been both similar and different, even as they’ve volunteered for the same causes, including Project Salvador, the Denver Aquarium, and their parish, St. Dominic.

Susan, a faithful Catholic, cheerful and outgoing, acknowledges that she doesn’t pray very often. “I never did,” she says. The more introspective Jack, on the other hand, is seldom without his Magnificat. He prays the morning and evening prayers daily, as well as the litany. He counts his core spiritual challenge today as something that’s dogged him since he was a young man who was thinking about religious life—the product of a stern Irish Catholic father who had also considered religious life. Fear motivated Jack’s faith back then. “The Dominicans help me relate to God with gratitude and respect instead,” he says.

Just as our faith challenges stay with us, Lowry has found that if a person isn’t spiritually inclined, the odds are pretty good that they’re not going to develop that in retirement. But when faith is already central, retirees can build upon that foundation.

“When I was fully employed and raising my family, you might say I was damnably busy,” says 86-year-old George Fikes, who worked as a federal investigator and raised 11 children. “I was usually a Mass-goer in the morning, but there were times my attention to the church was minimal.” No one could describe his faith that way since he retired. After retiring at age 57, Fikes says, he chose to focus on his intellectual side. He earned a master of divinity degree from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington and lived in a Cistercian monastery as a porter for 16 years. Now, still vigorous, he volunteers with the Ignatian Volunteer Corps at a senior center near Syracuse, New York.

For Fikes, retirement has meant freedom. He thinks his transition was easy for a couple reasons. He had a firm grounding in his Catholic faith and he could prepare for retirement; it wasn’t a surprise. Divorce was his far more difficult transition. “I didn’t see that coming,” he says. Still, losses now tumble on top of one another. “The longer you live, the more people fall away,” Fikes says. “The people you used to talk to are no longer around.”

Lasting legacy

Fikes says he expected some of the obvious changes after retirement. He didn’t, however, expect all the little everyday differences that grate at his nerves. “Everything changes,” he complains. “The way people talk, the body language, and the things you see on television. It’s all fast-paced violence with a scene change every 15 seconds. There’s a keen sense of change in the culture that steadily isolates you as you grow older.” As an example he offers the way salesclerks give change at Walmart, handing the sales slip and change all in one fast motion. “They used to count the change in your hand,” he says. “That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s awkward.”

Buchanan says Fikes’ observations are exactly right. “Although older adults have adapted to change all their lives, change is happening faster than ever before,” she says. “Just as they are slowing down, the world is speeding up, and they struggle to keep up.” She also calls out the extraordinary bias our culture has for youth, making many people dread diminishing strength. “People tend to buy into culture’s negative viewpoint of growing old and forget to look at aging as a natural part of God’s plan,” she says.

Buchanan calls upon churches to make sure that they’re making it possible for older adults and retirees to serve others even after they can no longer drive. “Unless the church is keenly aware and addresses the spiritual needs of older adults—from active to frail—they are left alone at a time when they need the church most,” she says. “The church falls short in helping older adults discover new ways that they can serve others. Because they can’t do what they once used to, they often end up doing nothing unless the church and family step in to help them rethink what they can do.”

Spiritual or not, the sense of our own mortality grows stronger the older we become. “For the lucky people,” says Lowry, “they realize death is not the end of their life, not the end of their existence. For those who are not faithful, there’s often still the sense that we’re all connected, that it’s their turn to do something for others. That’s universal, not a part of organized religion. It’s a desire to leave a legacy.”

Haas agrees. He teaches a class in spiritual autobiography where he helps retirees write their own stories. “There’s a real desire to leave a legacy,” he says, “an urge to tell our story, and in looking back on our story, to see God’s guidance and providential care. A lot of healing comes out of that process.”

Neither Lowry nor Haas is talking about money in regard to legacy. “Over time, most retirees realize that’s not important,” Lowry says. “I live on 40 percent of what I lived on when I was working. Material things feel much less important. But we all want to be known for something when we’re not here. We want strong relationships, and to be remembered as a loving person.”

This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 8, pages 12-17).

Image: ©iStock/Yuri