Aug 06, 2008

Plan to Keep Busy

Many retirees report experiencing a paradoxical situation: On the one hand, they have the sense that time is short and their life is running out; on the other, they don't have anything interesting to do after lunch. Even the most avid fisherman, gardener, traveler, or dog lover is likely to find plenty of time to both follow their passion and do many other things -- including, if she isn't careful -- becoming bored, depressed, and prematurely dependent on others.

As my late friend Babette Marks put it:

The ability to maintain an active involvement in life in a number of different ways is one key to leading a decent life when you're older. Face it, what else have you got? Your health probably isn't great, half your old friends are dead, and you don't recognize yourself in the mirror. If you don't keep interested and involved with lots of activities and interests, you'll end up a depressed old vegetable.
Babette was as right as she was blunt. In my observation, most people -- especially those who have been busy earlier in life -- make a successful transition to a reasonably fulfilling retirement if, and only if, they stay busy doing things that reinforce their sense of self-worth. Typically, this means being involved with others in activities they feel are meaningful. Everything from volunteering for a worthy cause to having sex can work. But it can also mean participating in highly absorbing solitary endeavors, such as skiing, playing music, or reading a wonderful book.

We can't find anyone in their sixties or seventies who tells us it's fun to spend most of their time watching TV, sitting on a park bench, or sleeping late. And even many people who are more active -- jogging, walking, bike riding, or swimming -- report that continually doing these routine things alone can quickly become joyless. Although we can point to no study that proves it, we're convinced that people whose lives revolve almost exclusively around solo activities seem to be sicklier and more depressed, and tend to die sooner than those who are more actively involved with life.

Why should you worry about planning your post-retirement activities long before you retire? After all, depending on how old you are, your retirement may be years, or even decades from now. Unfortunately, waiting until after retirement to figure out what you will do seldom works well. People who count on developing new interests, activities, and involvement after 65 often don't.

Ruth Cohen, a Beaverton, Oregon, geriatric specialist, puts it like this: "For the first time in history, older people have a plethora of choices. But unless you have a plan, you're not likely to get what you want." Or, as Fred Astaire remarked, "Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you've got to start young."
You may assume that finding plenty of interesting things to do after your retirement will be absolutely no problem, or that if filling up your retirement hours proves to be more of a challenge than you now think, that you'll nevertheless deal with it when the time comes. Don't be so sure! In a recent Harris poll, the typical retired respondent reported spending half of her free time watching TV and a good chunk of the rest doing housework.

If this combination doesn't sound fulfilling to you, you're not alone. The majority of retired people responding to the poll complained of feeling less useful after retirement than before. And in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, 30% of retirees reported feeling bored or alienated. And don't just assume you'll fill empty hours helping out at a local nonprofit organization. Finding fulfilling charitable work isn't always easy, especially if you wait until you are elderly. After all, if you haven't developed "helping skills" earlier in life, it may not be easy to do so at a time in life when you are likely to be more set in your ways and less open to new experiences.