My Comments: Most articles about retirement focus on money. Or how to avoid not having any. For millions of Americans, that’s the number one fear as the years roll by.
What’s described here is both tragic in one sense and perhaps avoidable in another. And for each, there’s an underlying message to be learned by all of us.
by James Coughlin \ February 3, 2019
Chris and Patty met in college, soon after graduation they married. The next 37 years were filled with career, children, and making a life together. After their last son married, Chris and Patty retired from their professions. Shortly thereafter, the couple hit another increasingly common milestone in later life. They divorced.
Unfortunately, Chris and Patty are not alone. Divorce is now so common for couples over 50 years old that there is a name for the global phenomena – gray divorce.
Over the last few decades, divorce rates among Americans 50 years old and older have doubled compared to other age groups that have actually experienced a decline in divorce. Compared to divorce rates in 1960, gray divorce in the United States has increased a startling 700%.
Money issues are often a source of significant stress for couples of all ages. But Chris and Patty were fortunate, money was never a problem. They saved and planned for a financially secure retirement.
For Chris and Patty, and other couples like them, there is another source of stress. As Patty describes it, soon after retiring, Chris became a fixture on her couch. Chris worked hard and long hours for decades. He spent little time developing relationships and interests outside of work.
Patty recounts that it seemed as though Chris would ask her each day what are we going to do today or what are we having for lunch? But, Patty had things to do and she knew what, and with whom, she was having lunch.
Over the years, in between work, and as their children became more independent, she had developed a circle of friends and a set of routines that transitioned into her retirement years. She now volunteers at a local university. A friend convinced Patty to take a pottery class with her. She fills in as a babysitter for her grandchildren when necessary. And, Patty rekindled her interest in playing tennis, which she admits her game is not as fast as it was in her 20s, but somehow is even more fun now. Patty even enjoys a regular girls’ night out with friends.
In contrast, Chris had few personal interests over the years except for an occasional golf game with work buddies. Now retired, those work friends have become more distant. Sadly, in comparison to what she wants to do in retirement, Patty simply says Chris is just not any fun.
And, there it is – the seemingly secret, but critical, ingredient to a happy retirement that no one tells us to plan for – fun.
Ironically, images about retirement are all about fun. Retirement is often portrayed as a seemingly endless vacation with walks on beaches, golf greens and bike rides. Despite how attractive life in retirement is marketed, it cannot be filled with singular events and one-week timeshare getaway experiences alone. Fun is far more than these images. Fun includes those activities we do by choice for pleasure, for personal meaning, for social wellbeing or simply just because.
Even if saving a decades-long marriage is not an issue, fun is a critical component of a happy retirement. Work is not just about income. It structures time, often provides purpose (sometimes pleasure), and is a major reason to get up and out in the morning. Retirement, that is, life without full-time work, is likely to be a long time. In fact it is likely to be a full one-third of adulthood. For many retirees, that is 20, 25, or more years of retirement. Fun, or finding those big and little pleasures to fill and structure the day is critical to wellbeing – and often a major means of connecting to other people.
Fun activities do not necessarily have to be light-hearted or trite activities such as endless bike rides often found on the covers of retirement brochures. Fun includes those activities we do by choice and enjoy, such as volunteering, taking a class, and, yes, even working part-time. All these activities provide chance collisions with other people and create opportunities to make an expanding group of friends in retirement that contribute to our social health and reduce the chances of isolation in older age.
Finding new interests, let alone activities you might develop a passion for, does not occur overnight. It requires the discipline of retirement financial planning itself. Exploring the range of what might be of interest to you, and perhaps your partner, takes time. Not just those activities you know, or did in your youth, but finding novel ones that force you to learn new things and meet different people.
Moreover, like ensuring financial security in retirement, it requires planning and investing. Identifying new interests and activities is a first step, but investing time to develop those interests before retirement is critical, e.g., joining a new club, taking a part-time class, volunteering an hour or two a week, while still working.
Finally, planning how to meaningfully expand those interests and structure a retirement that will be days, weeks, months and years with those new found interests, along with those punctuated moments of cruises, grandchildren and losing balls on the golf course, is a complete retirement plan. Because life without fun is simply living longer.