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The life issues of retirement

A happy retirement may mean reinventing oneself, says Jerry Schuitema.

Swellendam: – I have spent some time with quite a number of retirees since joining that demographic group a few years ago. It is dangerous to generalise, and perhaps I am someone who attracts misery more than most. But what strikes me is that the prospect of achieving the inner peace and contentment that one would expect from having none of the daily stresses of a working life seems to escape many. Most of us aspire to a blissful state during our active lives, and certainly hope to achieve it in the freedom of our sunset years.

There are of course, many retirement counsellors and it is not a bad idea to approach one or two. I’m presenting my thoughts not as one of those, but from my own experience and observations.

Provision and financial security remain the key concern for most middle class former employees, small entrepreneurs, tradesmen and even some professionals. While financial planners may feel justified in using this in their sales pitches to young and middle aged adults, it is a concern that does not necessarily go away with having adequate financial plans in place.

Indeed, what is quite surprising is to find that the level of concern does not differ much between those who have retired on the bare minimum and those with much higher levels of financial security. This is only partly due to an attempt to maintain pre-retirement lifestyles and implies that these concerns are largely self-defined.

In truth, the concern is less about the state of finances, than about the loss of options to earn income to improve the current state. That concern seems to linger until financial security exceeds by a good margin one’s own perception of or calculated requirement. By nature we all foster a sub-conscious confidence that tomorrow will be better than today. It’s what kept us going in our younger days when many of us were quite prepared to live within modest means while patiently holding on to the belief that things would improve and would be better for our children.

Adjusting to the reality that today is what is going to be, and perhaps even better than tomorrow is a huge leap for most people, many of whom are not even aware that it could be the source of inner agitation. But it is an essential adjustment for a relatively relaxed retirement and “living in the moment” is the most important life skill for that adjustment.

A perhaps self-evident but often neglected condition for living in the moment is to avoid deadlines as much as possible. Deadlines are the future’s way of destroying serenity in the present. We can often avoid them by simply not postponing until the last moment what can be done today.  (Have you done your tax returns yet?)

If one has the option of earning extra income then one should pursue it, but not to the excess of an acquaintance I mentioned previously, who slaved at something he hated, and then died to never really enjoy his more than adequate retirement funding.

The lingering need for exponential improvement of and control over one’s state drives many to some quite misguided ventures which more often than not they are totally unfamiliar with. A popular one seems to be a “guest house” or “coffee shop” at the coast. Swellendam, and I imagine many others on the popular Southern Cape Coast, have seen a number of inland retirees leave disillusioned and poorer after the failure of such ventures.

Coupled with the loss of active earnings, is the loss of a sense of purpose. One of my favourite quotes is that of Eleanor Roosevelt who said: “When you cease to make a contribution, you die.”  For a large part of our lives we have defined ourselves by what we do, our work, and by those with whom we have associated with in a professional capacity. Retirement cuts that umbilical cord and it’s not easy to grow a new one. (Terrible analogy, I know!)

One simply has to find comfort in the fact that rarely can anyone, including great icons of the past and present, continue to make a contribution to the end of their days. One reaches a point of simply having to look back and be satisfied with whatever one has achieved. Smaller acts of contribution, like volunteering for a church bazaar, do not rank lower than those applauded by a stadium of admiring followers. The latter is more about satisfying one’s ego than achieving real self-worth. By this time, one should have reached the maturity that no longer seeks the good opinion of others.

A sense of loss seems to be quite pervasive in many of the retirees I spoke with and it is more than losing regular earnings and purpose. As one progresses into retirement one experiences the fading away of previous friends and acquaintances, especially those that were professional and work connections. The older one gets, the more difficult it is to forge new relationships. I’ve heard it said that one does not make many new friends after the age of 40 or so. That may be a personality issue, but I suspect it also has to do with being less flexible and tolerant as one gets older.

What one can’t avoid is the number of family members, friends and acquaintances who pass on, increasing one’s sense of loss and awareness of one’s own mortality. The latter can be depressing, but can also be a gift in persuading one to live in the moment; focus on what is important; reflect without melancholy; let go of anger and regrets, and shed clutter. Accumulation and ownership at this stage of one’s life is purposeless and burdensome. Empty spaces are much better filled by strengthening one’s relationships with those closest to one, and reconciling with those that may have drifted because of some or other past grievance.

If you have a life partner, an important discussion should be about having as much space between you as about doing things together. It’s perhaps an odd observation to throw in here, but I always sense a touch of underlying acrimony in many retired couples. It’s most likely caused by the sudden 24/7 togetherness which even young couples much in love will find difficult to cope with.

Travel is a favourite activity for those that can afford it. This is probably a prejudiced view from someone who travelled quite a bit in his younger days but I cannot see much value in it today. I simply got tired of the schlep of crowded airports; baggage fetching and carrying; in and out of trains, buses or taxis; standing in queues; and trying to make sense of discourteous people babbling in a foreign language.

Avid travellers will disagree with me, but I often wonder whether it is not chasing shadows, a trivial diversion, filling one’s memory bank with more snapshots that crowd out other, more important but perhaps not so pleasant things that need attention.

The older one gets, the more the journey becomes an inner one, forced upon us by increasing frailty. It’s a journey one can rehearse to avoid being overwhelmed by it when that time inexorably arrives. The key lies in an ability to detach without rancour, or to love without attachment.

Psychology doyens inform us that inner peace and contentment is as much a matter of mind as it is of circumstance. Retirement demands a new and different mind-set for us to achieve that. It’s a question of reinventing oneself. 

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