A not-so-busy Retirement Plan
Maybe it’s the heat these summer weeks have brought, or advancing years confirmed by yet another birthday. Somehow, I’ve toppled into a state of lethargy this month. I want to sit and read. Work crossword puzzles. Take a nap in the afternoon. It sounds lovely in theory, so why does this disturb me? I’m retired. Why do I feel guilty about this unproductive state?
David Ekerdt, professor of gerontology in the Life Span Institute at the University of Kansas, suggests this guilt derives from boomer-influenced attitudes about retirement. Instead of viewing these years as a time of relaxation and personal reflection, we have turned retirement into another occupation, he says.
“For today’s retirees, ‘busy boasting’ is the new status symbol,” he wrote in an article that caught my eye. “The idea is that there is no time to rest when there are so many places to see, causes to champion, classes to take, languages to learn and businesses to start.”
I recognized the syndrome immediately. Isn’t that what we’re expected to do when we leave jobs—stay active, involved and curious about life and community? Isn’t that the concept behind a column called “Not the Retiring Type?”
“What’s the problem with a busy retirement?” I asked Ekerdt when I reached him at his office in Lawrence, KS. “What about research urging physical and mental activity as a hedge against memory loss and dementia? What about social connection?”
A busy retirement is absolutely fine, he responded. But so is a not-so-busy retirement. Retirement presents an opportunity to pause and ask yourself who you want to be after you are no longer identified by a work role, he says. Taking time to consider choices and goals may evoke a more meaningful retirement.
Retirement provokes identity questions
“Who will I be? What is the way I am going to think about myself?” he suggests. “It is something to solve because you were a worker and a family member for 30 or 40 years and when you don’t do that anymore, who are you going to be?”
That may take some time for a person to work out, he says.
“We have this motor that has been running for years. When that motor shuts down, it may take awhile to know how to replace it. Some people may feel lost for a few months.”
Instead of pondering questions of identity and purpose, many of today’s retirees feel compelled to focus on what to do with more time and end up feeling busier than they did in a job, he says.
It’s no surprise, really. We’ve all heard the questions that buzz through retirement celebrations. “What are you going to do now? Will it drive you crazy sharing time and space with your spouse? The questions reveal an expectation that we’ll stay busy, out of the house, “doing” things that keep us productive. It shortcuts a transition that offers time for reflection and connection.
When we talked by phone, Ekerdt had just returned from the 50th reunion of his high school class. Renewing old friendships—like attending a class reunion—is something he believes can be rewarding in senior years.
“I think it would be a wonderful retirement project to renew ties with friends and old acquaintances—people we worked with or our kids grew up together—to understand our lives and why we think those things or those people are important,” he says.
“More important, I think it might be an opportunity in retirement to repair relationships and estrangements—to settle things with people if there is a need. Those actions take time that we often don’t have when our lives are filled with work and family responsibilities.”
Ekerdt, 68, estimates that he is two or three years away from his own retirement as he works to wrap up research projects at the University of Kansas and complete a term as president of the Gerontological Society of America. He was 25 when he began surveying seniors about preparations for retirement. That graduate school research fueled a lifelong investigation of all phases of retirement: how people approach this stage of life, how they settle into it, how they manage a lifetime of possessions.
“It has been very interesting,” he says. “How people see the future rolling out ahead of them and how they are preparing for the time ahead. Older people are always thinking about the future because there are all these ‘what if’ situations.”
The ‘what if’s’ raise provocative questions for us, Ekerdt says. What if my life changes and I cannot live independently? What if my children decide I should no longer drive? What does society owe me? What do I owe society? What is my place in the world? Did my life matter?
“Older people know they have a limited time ahead,” he says. “What would be the best way to spend that? Do I need to change in the last years of my life?"
The questions can guide us in creating a purpose-driven retirement, Ekerdt says. Finding purpose is personal. A retirement role that works for some doesn’t work for all.
Let Retirement be Retirement
“Let retirement be retirement,” he urges. “By that I mean, we should not put expectations on people that they can’t fulfill. Some people don’t have the personality to get out there and volunteer with school children To make them feel bad because they are not doing that is, I think, a little oppressive.”
And as for the issue of couples driving one another crazy in retirement, that, too, is a misplaced expectation, Ekerdt says. His interviews reveal that most couples look forward to time with their partner. It may mean adjusting to new schedules but often couples want to enjoy this phase of life together, he says.
“The important thing is to let people find what their own level of activity and involvement is going to be in retirement.”
One form of activity that Ekerdt encourages tackles another area of his research—lightening the load of possessions that amasses in a lifetime until it haunts both owners and heirs. It isn’t easy, he acknowledges, and I’ll second that. It’s been a year since my spouse and I addressed the demands downsizing. The process of choosing to cull or to keep left me so befuddled that I’m still rummaging in closets and drawers looking for things I no longer own.
Ekerdt understands. It takes courage to let go things that were once central to family life and personal identity, he says. The task is physical, cognitive and emotional. Research confirms that it’s better to start earlier than later. Letting go becomes more challenging and less frequent with advancing years. If the task seems onerous at age 60, it won’t be easier at 70.
Perhaps that’s because we lose energy and commitment. Or maybe it’s because, at age 70, so many of us are still just too busy.
Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer, and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org