Retirement for Two
By Maryanne Vandervelde, Ph.D.
For many of us, this is the first and only time in our lives that we can make really significant choices. We may not have youth any longer, but we likely have gained some wisdom. If we want to, we can reinvent ourselves. We can live wherever we want. If we have enough money, we can work-or not. We can volunteer and give something back-or not. We can take classes and learn something new-or not. We can ski or play tennis or golf-even on weekdays, when access is easier. We can travel for short or long periods of time-or not at all. We can strengthen old friendships or make new friends-or neither. We can spend more time with our children and grandchildren-if they will have us. We can take care of pets-or not. We can spend quality time with whomever we wish. We can improve, or at least conserve, our health. We can sleep as much as we want, staying up late or getting up early. We can pay more attention to our investments. We can finally relax.
One upscale couple described retirement as freedom from ties and dresses. My own husband has a closet full of suits providing sustenance for the Seattle moths. (He says he has to keep a couple for weddings and funerals.) At the same time, he has acquired a huge wardrobe of shorts and golf shirts. To my chagrin, he has been known to wear shorts to the finest restaurants! I too have a lot of business suits in my closet, but I seldom wear anything these days except comfortable pants, cotton shirts, and sensible shoes.
Clothing issues are frivolous, but bigger, more important questions must be addressed in the context of this new freedom. The overall, most interesting question is "What do I want for the rest of my life?" And behind that question is "What will bring me pleasure and peace?" While these questions suggest wonderful opportunities, they can be terrifying as well.
New Images and Role Models
There has been a dramatic shift in most people's thinking about retirement. This stage of life used to be seen as sad and even slightly embarrassing-old people waiting in the wings before the final curtain call, people who have been put on the shelf, out to pasture. Now, however, younger people often sound jealous of their elders. Advertisements show retirement as sexy and older people as upbeat. The shrewd marketing of one retirement chain says: "It's a time for boundless fun with friends old and new."
It has been said that retirees are the new American adolescents. They play sports, drive fast cars, travel to exotic locales, and have romantic dates with each other. In the words of Neil Young's song, a lot of retirees would rather burn out than rust.
Our role models have changed too. A lot has been written, for example, about Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter in their post-presidential years. They both were out of jobs early-he at age fifty-six, she at fifty-five. They had some adjusting to do, but they have become examples par excellence for many. He plays softball. They are both physically fit. They build houses for Habitat for Humanity in poor neighborhoods and do other volunteer work. They both write books. Together they run the Carter Center in Atlanta-a forum for resolving international disputes and pursuing health issues. She hosts a yearly symposium on mental health. He travels around the world to monitor elections and mediate conflicts. They have taken up new recreations and hobbies. They have helped each other try many new things. They also make their family a priority.
There is some conjecture that the Carters have worked so hard at retirement because their record in the White House leaves a lot to be desired. If this is true, it is an option that is available to all of us. That is, if we are not happy with what we accomplished at work, we still have many years to do other things well. If we have been victims of difficult bosses, they are no longer in charge. If we have made some poor choices in the past, the slate is now almost clean again. If our parents and grandparents provided negative models for retirement, we can make up our own rules. This is a wonderful time for new beginnings.
Retirement may be a bigger deal than we had thought, and doing this stage well, especially as a couple, may take more effort than we had planned. Transferring our focus away from work can have unexpected ramifications, and learning to maneuver around new barriers may take some new skills. But all of this can be a wonderful experience for couples who are determined to find the best path-for them.
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy's oft-quoted advice about relationships was "Stay loyal to those who love you." If we are lucky enough, or resourceful enough, to have a partner in this retirement adventure, we'd be wise to listen
Anna Quindlen's graduation speech at the Collegiate School in New York City, now a book called A Short Guide to a Happy Life, suggests this simple prescription for happiness: Pay attention to relationships. Ms. Quindlen wrote short, elegant vignettes about her own role as a spouse, a parent, and a friend, and each paragraph ends the same way: "I show up; I listen; I try to laugh."
None of these three behaviors is particularly easy because most of us are very selfish about our time and energy. We don't always want to show up when others ask; we have more important things to do. Then, because our minds are occupied with our own, more significant issues, it is hard to calm down enough to really listen. That is, it's difficult to not only hear the words but also use our "third ear"-the one that searches for context and meaning. And finally, it is not always easy to keep one's sense of humor, especially in relationships that have been strained over the years by anger or disappointment. But the effort to laugh and not take life too seriously will bear magnificent fruit in both oneself and one's relationships.
Most of us take little time to ponder philosophical matters as we struggle to make a living and raise our families, but retirement is finally the time to focus on meaning! Happiness does not come out of the clear blue sky, and it seldom comes to very selfish people Happiness involves relationships with others and activities that have some meaning for us. The examined life is still the best one, and retirement-especially with a partner-can be wonderful because you now have the time to make happiness happen.