February 24, 2017

Retirement and Sex: Our Real Differences

Fifty Shades of Retirement? Not even close. Sex always grabs attention, especially the concept of retirement and sex. Of course, with a blog title of satisfying retirement you might imagine there is a connection. Well, sorry to disappoint, but this post is going in a different direction.

One of the major stumbling blocks to a successful retirement is how the two sexes react to not working. Lots of previous posts have dealt with some of the adjustments that both partners must make when one or both retire from daily employment. This time around I'd like to focus a bit closer on how men and women are quite different when each moves toward retirement or officially leaves the working world behind.

Retirement and men:

Various studies show that men tend to be overconfident about their investing and retirement planning skills. This helps explain why so many enter the last decade of work with nothing close to what will be needed. In this country the average person within 20 years of a typical retirement age has a only $50,000 in retirement savings. For those in their late 50's and early 60's the average is not much better: $100,000.

What are we thinking? There is no retirement tooth fairy that is about to leave hundreds of thousands of dollars under our pillow.  While these figures are not for men only, the investor and saver in the majority of couple or family situations is the male, so he must bear the most responsibility for the problem of facing financial reality.

In additional to financial issues, for many men, identity revolves around a number of culturally accepted central roles and skills:

•being a good provider for his family
•being 'useful' to society in general
•being in charge of situations

The good news is these three traits are more stereotypes today than they were a generation ago. But, most men probably believe these statements are true. That belief, whether based in reality or not, creates problems. In order to adjust successfully to retirement, men have to start redefining the bases of their sense of self. Without the role of breadwinner or leader to rely on, one may ask, who am I? Self-esteem can start to fall and depression can set in.

If prior to retirement your partner stayed at home while you worked, she may resent your intrusion into her areas of control. This is especially true if, in an attempt to direct your urge to do something, you impose yourself on her well-established routines. Tension can arise out of the increased need for joint decision-making.

Loneliness and isolation are a risk in old age for the simple reason that as people grow older, more and more of their friends tend to die, move away, or lose the mobility needed to keep in touch. This is particularly an issue for men, who tend to emphasize self-reliance and put less effort into maintaining their social networks. Most men have few friends, and often not a single close friend in whom they can confide. (see the post from earlier this year on friendship and retirement)

Retirement and women:

Contrary to what some may assume, research indicates women overall bring less emotion to the stock market than men and approach investing more dispassionately. This can make a big difference in the size of one's investment and savings situation. Mistakes are admitted and a women moves on. Men are more likely to hold onto a losing investment longer in hopes it will turn around, thus avoiding having to admit making a mistake in the first place.

This is an important consideration because women, on average, outlive men by almost seven years. This means women will require extra money for their retirement. According to some studies, most baby boomer women who are approaching their retirement age are expected to live well into their nineties. This says that women will have to prepare for emotional and financial security during a retirement that could last thirty years.

Another factor typically faced by many women is they spent less time in the work force. On average, men have 44 years of work while women average 32 years. Why? It is the female who usually takes a break from her career to have and then take care of children, and sometimes even to become a full time caregiver for aging parents, both hers and his.

Interruptions in the working life of women have important financial consequences. When women stop working Social Security contributions cease.  Obviously, that means reduced benefits later on. Coupled with the unfortunate reality of lower pay to begin with, women are often at a serious financial disadvantage.

Women have one major advantage over men during their prime years: diversity. Many women juggle both a job and a household. This situation teaches women to be able to handle a wide range of problems and tasks simultaneously, skills which come in handy during retirement.

Retirement letdown:

A fascinating finding I discovered while preparing this article came from a study conducted a few years ago at a university in Australia. The researchers looked at the concept of a retirement letdown. This is the period I have referred to as the second stage of retirement. The initial honeymoon period has worn off and the stark reality of not working becomes a major factor. Stress, worry, feeling unfulfilled, and extra strains on a relationship begin to occur.

Men tended to experience this retirement letdown after six months. Women, on the other hand, didn't experience similar problems until up to five years after retirement. Unfortunately, the study didn't answer the obvious question: why is there such a difference between the sexes in going through this down period?

I could speculate that it comes from points made earlier in this post. Men have so much of their identity wrapped up in their jobs, are so focused on just a handful of things, and have a weaker social support system that the end of work creates a much bigger problem for guys. Interestingly, if this study is repeated in another 10 years I wonder if the results would be the same. The increased role of women in the business world and the evolution of more shared responsibilities at home might push women closer to the man's timetable of six months before the letdown.

All of this proves a point made may times in Satisfying Retirement: this journey we are on is not easy. Hard work, planning, compromise, sensitivity to others, and personal growth are not just nice attributes to possess: they are requirements. Add to that the differences between men and women and it is a pleasant surprise how many of us are enjoying the ride!

February 20, 2017

Are You a Shadow Artist?

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way talks about being a shadow artist. In her book, It's Never Too Late to Begin Again, she says a shadow artist is someone who has creative urges or abilities and chooses a career that is close to the life they would like to have themselves, but are afraid to pursue.

So, they settle for something in the "shadow" of their true heart's desire. A painter becomes a gallery owner, a playwright works in the front office of a theater company, or a photographer becomes an assistant to another photographer. Those folks satisfy their creative needs by being part of the world of art, but without the actual creation.

For some reason the shadow artist idea popped into my mind when I was thinking about unsatisfied desires. Retirement is the time of life when we are often able to pursue something that has eluded us until now. Yet, for a host of reasons, we remain in the shadows of that dream, unable to take the steps necessary to fully realize it.

Financial constraints, life circumstances, or health reasons may hold us back. Ms. Cameron suggests it can be a lack of belief in our own talents and a fear of failure. So, think of any part of our life that is lived more on the edges of something than being fully engaged:

1) You have always wanted to compete in a marathon. Instead you take part in organizing local 5 or 10K runs and remain somewhat unsatisfied.

2) Your photography generates very positive comments from friends. Instead of seeing if your work will sell, you are content to display it in your home and for family.

3) You love to write and seem to have a knack for it. But, instead of the hard work needed to produce a book, you are content to attend artist signings or write a blog.

4) You watch the Food Network, collect kitchen gadgets, and find great recipes on You Tube. Even so, your weekly menu seems to always be the safe choices you know others will like.

5) You collect travel videos and guidebooks of the places you'd love to explore in person, but never actually go.

6) It has always been a goal to go back to college and get that degree that eluded you in your youth. Instead, you find yourself attending free adult classes at the local community college.

Importantly, none of these six examples indicate failure. In their own way, each can be very satisfying and fulfilling. Creativity is evident in virtually everything we do. Creativity is simply the use of imagination or original ideas. Being even a small part of the world that excites you is a good thing.

The question is whether we settle for less than we can be. We get close to a dream, but, stay in its shadow. Is there any part of your retirement that is prompting you to move from the shadows into the light?

February 16, 2017

Retirement and Watching Birds Feed

What do retirement and birds feeding have to do with each other? Well, usually not much. I guess you could say that retirement gives someone the time and freedom to watch the bird feeder in the backyard, and that's true. But, that is not where this is going.

I was watching birds eat on a particular morning not too long ago. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Dozens of them flew into the yard at first light and swarmed the feeder, suspended on a pole 7 feet in the air.

Those that couldn't get a clawhold on the feeder's lip waited patiently on the walls.

After an appropriate amount of time (in bird-time), a new batch would flap to the feeder and push away those who were already feeding. This process repeated itself for at least 20 minutes. I  moved on to something else as most of my morning visitors flew off to start their day.

Before leaving my chair and heading inside, what suddenly became obvious was the way some of the birds acted. While the majority jostled for space on the feeder's bottom tray or waited their turn on the wall, a handful choose a different approach.

They were fully aware that the mass of hungry birds were knocking lots of seeds to the ground. These little fellows realized that their morning meal was available to them without fighting for position or waiting for space on the feeder; they just had to pick up the seed that had fallen to the ground. No battling for position, no flapping of wings, just an easy stroll on the lawn and around the flower pots. 

So, what was the lesson learned? What does this have to do with retirement? Simply that there are often different approaches to the same problem. One choice is to be with the crowd. There is safety in numbers. If we share we will get our portion in due course. We are social creatures that thrive as part of a group. 

The other choice is to see a different path, the path less chosen, to borrow a Robert Frost phrase. Rather than pick the obvious solution, some of us find greater satisfaction in going against the grain. We still reach our objective, just a little differently.

Importantly, neither is right or wrong. Both groups of birds ate their fill. The larger flock followed the expected pattern, ate, and moved on. The smaller crowd had to work a bit harder to find the fallen bird seed, but had less competition. Both groups flew off at the same time, onto wherever birds go to spend the rest of their morning.

Retirement can be like that pattern I watched that morning. We might approach a problem to be solved somewhat differently, but in the end we achieve our goal and move on.

February 12, 2017

Showing Love: Helping Our Aging Parents

Almost six and a half years ago I wrote a post about how we exhibit  love when we care for our parents as they age. Just last week I re-read that post and felt a twinge: I still had both of my parents when it was written. I wanted to share this with you again since this is something virtually all of us must deal with at some point. I haven't changed the original text which was written while both were still alive.

For many of us, One of the toughest things we face is dealing with our parents as they age. Watching someone you love decline is not pleasant. My mom and dad are struggling so I am learning as I go. Since they live in town that makes my wife and me the primary caregivers, though my brothers do what they can by long distance.

Almost 4 years ago, my parents had the foresight to move into a retirement community. It offers independent and assisted living options as well as a nursing care center. They wanted to avoid the situation where one or both became unable to care for themselves or too sick to be accepted into such a facility. We had discussed other options: caring for them in their own home for as long as possible, or even moving in with us.

But, in the end mom and dad insisted that the benefit of the three level system was best. As it turned out their timing was excellent. Within 18 months my mom’s health began to take a dramatic turn for the worse. Dad is a trouper but his failing memory and hearing loss often leaves him somewhat befuddled.

Anyone with aging parents knows about all the daily decisions that I faced. Can anything be done to make their home safer to help prevent falls, burns, or other accidents? Do the bathrooms have grip bars? Are the throw rugs slippery? What in-home services does the facility offer? Asking these questions directly to my parents usually didn’t generate helpful responses. For quite awhile their contention was that they could handle everything even when that was not so. Finally, I had to just go ahead and take the necessary steps.

Older folks often suffer from poor nutrition. Meals are skipped or poorly planned. If the person’s eyesight is failing or gone, even the heating of meals becomes a big challenge. Luckily, the facility where my folks live has a few dining options so two of the three daily meals are taken care of. Breakfast at home or a light lunch doesn’t create an insurmountable obstacle, at least for now.

Next on my list were financial issues. Again, some foresight proved very helpful. Various health and legal directives were up to date. What about paying bills and taking care of taxes?  I assume that this can be an area of conflict, particularly if the relationship between parent and grown child isn’t the best. The fear of being taken advantage of is very real for seniors.

Careful explanations of the consequences of missing credit card payments, utility bills, or tax problems are required. My dad was more than willing to turn almost all of that over to me.  I now can interact directly with their investment counselor and make decisions. After being added to the checking account I can pay bills. My dad still wants to receive copies of the bills and statements so going paperless hasn’t happened yet.

One the biggies I have yet to deal with is the taking away of the car keys. From discussions with friends and what I read in various blogs, I know this will not be fun. My mom has been unable to drive for a few years due to increasing loss of vision. So dad is the one who takes her (and himself) to all the doctor’s appointments, food shopping, and all the errands of daily living. I check his car every time I visit for new dents or scratches. So far so good.

When he begins to forget enough to become a danger, or has an accident, I will have to step in. Their community has constant shuttle and on-property transportation but it will be a major withdrawal of independence when the car keys disappear. 

Each parent takes multiple pills every day, so the management of that can’t be left to chance. I have met with their family doctor and I do have the legal authority to intercede if needed. But, there is no one to guarantee that the right pills are taken, at the right time, and in the correct dosage. I am watching for signs of trouble and will have to find a solution when that step becomes crucial.

Memory loss comes with age. Already I sometimes have those frustrating “senior moments.” Both parents were having issues in this area that are becoming worse. In my mom’s case, she broke her leg and ankle about 17 months ago. That put her in a hospital for almost two weeks and then into the nursing center. She doesn’t remember breaking her leg. I assume some of that is the brain blocking out bad experiences. But, it is still amazing to me that whole episode is not real to her at all.

Dad has almost no short-term memory either. Luckily, he is a list-maker. His daily to-do list is written down in great detail in a notebook he carries with him always. Within the last year I have taught him how to feel comfortable with using a cell phone. If he gets lost, or has an auto breakdown, I’m hopeful he will call me for help.

The broken leg really accelerated mom’s decline. She is confined to the health center, except for regular trips to the hospital for other issues. While she is allowed to “visit” their apartment, she will not be allowed to return there to live. That awareness, along with her almost total blindness  have left her with little to fill her day and mind, so the slippage continues. Dad spends most of each day sitting in her room, reading the paper, or discussing doctor appointments, but that is causing his world to close in too.

I’m afraid this is not a post that will end of a burst of optimism. Dealing with aging parents is mostly about facing reality. On several levels my folks are blessed. They have the financial resources to be in the facility they are. They have family in town who visits at least once a week, sometimes more.

After 63 years of marriage they remain deeply in love and committed to being there through good and bad. Mom and dad were there for me. It is my time to be there for them.

I will feel eternally grateful that I was able to help mom and dad during the last few years of their lives. It wasn't easy but it was important.