Sometimes Living a Fulfilling Retirement is Not Just About Keeping Busy

If you hope to make the most of your second act you need to know what you are in for. Even with enough saved and invested to subsidize the lifestyle you envision there is no guarantee things will turn out as expected. And how can you really know what to expect when you have never been retired? Stories from those who have gone before you may have no relevance to the retirement that awaits you. Unfortunately if you are unable to predict to at least some degree what the coming decades hold you could be in for uneasy times. You need to know what you are going to do to find entertainment, satisfaction, meaning and excitement or what’s the point?

For me a fulfilling retirement is pretty straightforward. I don’t feel the need to necessarily find deep meaning in every moment spent during each day. I don’t want to look back and feel like I wasted my time but there is a lot of leeway when it comes to what I actually do. Each day, I keep busy spreading my efforts across multiple activities and interests until at least until five o’clock, otherwise known as happy hour. As shared in previous blogs I have concocted a mix of exercise, hiking, playing the piano, gardening, travel, reading, and on line courses that keep me feeling engaged and content. My blogging keeps me involved just enough with the business world so those skills do not entirely waste away. The truth is I can’t sit still for long – I get restless. So it is also important to stay open to new avenues to explore. And if that is not enough we just added a Boston terrier to our family so who has time to be bored!

But what if you are not happy just keeping busy? What if retirement takes you away from a working world that you do not hate, maybe even enjoy? Not everyone is okay with doing a little this a little that until the day is done. I may be happy with my retirement agenda but someone else may find such a life incredibly boring and unfulfilling.

A reader of recently shared a challenging situation. After a successful and meaningful career in a high level position he gave retirement a try. Within a year he was back at another job, not nearly so satisfying or engaging. During that brief interlude he discovered work was his passion, what defined him and made him feel good. Retirement was not what he hoped for – “I am not a hobby or volunteer guy”.

When your work defines who you are – when what you value most about who you are is intimately tied to what you do for a living – the transition into retirement can be that much more difficult. Not only are you challenged at cocktail parties with providing a pithy answer to “what do you do?” but you must also find an answer to your own dilemma: since I am no longer working how am I contributing? What is it I do that matters?

If I was not happy or satisfied in my retirement just keeping busy, what could I do?

First I would try to identify what is it that gives me the most satisfaction in life, a true feeling of fulfillment. Is it doing good for others? Might it be achieving a challenging goal? Do I feel best when I attempt to improve the person I am? Can I be fulfilled simply spending time appreciating all the little things that feel good  to do? Each of us is driven by a different spark, something that more than any other makes us feel good, happy, and complete. If that spark can be identified maybe we can better focus our efforts in a direction that offers the most bang for the buck. Pursuing what you are passionate about is a lot more fun than just killing time. But it is not always easy to identify such a source of bliss in retired life.

I would ask myself if I can do whatever I want how would that look? The freedom to choose how you spend days is a wonderful part of retirement – if you can fill in the blanks. What do I like to do? What would I prefer to avoid? What gives me pride in accomplishment? What is it that lights the fire to get me out of bed each morning raring to go? It is likely a variety of activities and experiences combine to make your ideal day. And that is perfect – variety keeps things fresh. A balance between activity and leisure works best for many. Another plus for retirement is you can always change your mind. If something does not work out as you hoped, move on. Maybe you spend half the day “being productive” and the other is free time. I always like to do something productive first so I feel I have “earned” the right to relax.

If it is not about the money is there a post-career-career that may be interesting? Many enjoy the comradery and challenge and meaning being part of a business concern. I believe if you enjoy working there is no reason not to include it as part of your retirement. The retirement just right for you comes down to doing what you want – you make the rules. Perhaps part-time at a local start up where you can utilize all your skills wearing many different hats. Maybe the thought of building your own business sound intriguing. Without the stress of having to make a lot of money you can experiment a bit. There is a lot to be said about being your own boss.

My wife retired just over a year ago. She was initially somewhat afraid, unsure if she could find enough to keep her engaged for the next twenty plus years. Having worked in numerous start-up environments she loved the regular interaction with bright minds, the excitement of growing a company and the satisfaction of actively being a part of its success. Over recent months she has begun to fill her dance card with a combination of jigsaw puzzles (nothing less than 2000 pieces), artistic quilting (not like what your grandma used to make), and experimenting with a variety of recipes (win-win with that one). But something is still missing. So she keeps her eyes on employment boards for just the right job that might fill in the blanks to create the perfect retirement for her. The combination of a part-time job with her other hobbies should be just the right mix.

How much of your time do you need to spend in meaningful pursuits versus relaxing or just going with the flow? I am relatively happy with the retirement I have. But there are times when I get a bit restless, feeling I could or should be doing more. Occasionally I feel guilty when someone asks what I have been up to the past weeks and I cannot quickly come up with a list of significant achievements. If you need to feel you are spending your time in worthwhile pursuits maybe you make a list of goals. Having something to focus on each day adds a bit of purpose to your endeavors. And achievement of goals that are important to you personally may give you that feeling of satisfaction you desire.

Do you prefer doing your own thing or interacting with others? My wife and I differ in the amount of socialization we desire. She loves people time and I am very comfortable with me time. Knowing where you stand in this regard can help you channel efforts toward the best end.

Who ever said retirement is easy? You would think with the freedom to do whatever you want it would be no problem to enjoy every day. But there is something to be said about living meaningful moments. What makes us happy, satisfied and glad to be alive differs for each of us. The trick is to figure out what it is that makes the retired you tick. And then by all means do it.

Kudos to the Caregivers

Over the years as I endeavor to navigate my own retirement journey I often think of what lies further down the road. At 57 I am learning to adapt to and sometimes reluctantly accept the fact that I am not physically the person I was 20 or 30 years ago. Little aches and pains, a bit less stamina when exercising or gardening, and the realization that those small print descriptions on product labels are really small – all insidious developments slinking their way into my everyday existence.  But it’s okay. At this stage the pluses far outweigh the minuses.

But what about down the road? How will my life look when I am 67 or 77 or 87?

My folks are both 84, still living on their own in the house where I grew up since age seven. When I look at the life they live I am inspired by their independence and determination to stay in their home. I admire the love that has kept them happily together for 65 years and counting. They still make the occasional road trip up to the Mendocino coast or down to Fresno to visit my brother’s family. By all accounts they are doing very well. But as you would expect at their age they have challenges. Both move slowly and carefully, ever watchful of that dreaded fall that might incapacitate them. Dad has had to relegate much of the garden work he used to love to the care of others. Getting up from chairs requires extra effort as legs are not as strong as they once were. And balance is always a concern. One false step and bad things can happen.

For now mom is the more steady on her feet. Because of this she is able to assist with some of those responsibilities that dad used to own. Her strength affords that additional measure of independence that might otherwise elude them. If she could not do it they would have to find someone to help them. Once you head down that road it is not uncommon to find you are unable to return to the independent ways of earlier days.

Bronze of Old couple on bench

My parents are fortunate mom is able to help where she can but it is not always easy. Sometimes she is forced to step outside her comfort zone to do things that had always been dad’s domain. Occasionally she must walk a fine line balancing the temptation to offer too much help before letting dad give it his best. It is easy to want to help with every little thing, to make it easier for the one you love. But if you take away all of the activities and chores that are part of a normal day what is left? Instead of making things easier you risk triggering feelings of helplessness or uselessness. The best of intentions might be misinterpreted.

I think the biggest challenge faced when one gets to the point in life where he or she can no longer do it all on their own is dealing with growing feelings of frustration. So many of those little things that were easy to do are no longer so. From the simplest act of preparing the cups of coffee and morning repast to share in bed to changing those darn light bulbs to lifting a case of wine from the trunk onto the ground, nothing is easy. How do you not become angry when you must ask someone to do the littlest of things? What a helpless feeling it must be with each incremental loss of control and independence.  No one wants to be a burden yet if you must lean on another for the simplest of chores how can you not feel that way?

We have a friend who has made a career of helping those later in years manage their daily lives. He moves from home to home doing whatever it takes to make life tolerable, more meaningful and more enjoyable for those who can no longer do it on their own. Along the way he has dealt with “rich people” who are less than considerate and rarely appreciative. He has supported and championed those too weak or sick to fight their own battles. In many cases he sacrifices his own life to be there 24/7 for clients who have no other option. He does not shy away whatever the situation. And there is no doubt those he works with are better for having him in their lives. Kudos to you Kevan.

Chances are at some point each of us will be called upon to act as caregivers. Whether for a parent, spouse, sibling or friend it’s a safe bet someone will need our help. It may be a part time requirement or an all-consuming full time commitment. Until we walk in those shoes it is not possible to know what it is like, what it requires and how difficult it can be. To all of those willing to take up the mantle and give whatever it takes know you are appreciated. The world is a better place because of your efforts.