November 19, 2010

A Retirement Myth

I have this image that my retirement experience is quite different from the one my parents have lived. Of course that includes the value judgment that mine has probably been better. To prove the point I built a list of some of the major events in their retirement journey so I could compare it to mine.

Surprise, surprise. In several important criteria Mom & Dad's time after work has beaten mine, hands down. I would never have thought that true until I wrote this. It has been quite an eye-opener. Using my original list, here is a comparison that lead to this conclusion that my beliefs were more myth than reality.

Financial Expectations: My parents assumed that the pensions and investments they had accumulated would be there for them when needed. They planned on Medicare and a strong supplemental policy, earned by Mom's 35 years as a teacher in Massachusetts, would take care of their medical expenses. They assumed Social Security would remain solvent and send them each a check every month.

Every assumption they made, every promise society made to them, has been fulfilled. Substantial medical bills are taken care of. Their investments continue to grow each year, not shrink. Their  pensions have not looked for ways to cut benefits or go back on their word.

In my case, I self-funded my retirement savings. They suffered a big hit 2 years ago but are slowly climbing back to where we were in 2008.  My wife and I have never had a group medical policy; we have always been in the individual market, which is expensive and has major restrictions on care. Neither of us is old enough yet for Medicare, but we expect it to be less generous for us in the coming years.

  • In this comparison my parents are the clear winners.

Enjoy Freedom and Free Time.  For the first 10 years after retiring, Mom & Dad enjoyed travel. They made several trips to Europe, took cruises, visited friends back East, and went for month-long driving trips. For several years their passports got quite a workout. 

Dad took up painting. He was an electrical engineer by training and had never exhibited any artistic leanings. Frankly, we were amazed at his interest and ability in this creative endeavor. To this day he continues to solo in the church choir.  Mom taught for 35 years. When she retired her teaching didn't stop. For another decade she volunteered as a classroom assistant at a school near their home. That kept her active, involved, and excited to work with the youngsters.

My wife and I have traveled since retirement though not as much. Our financial situation wasn't nearly as solid as my parents, primarily because I retired at 52, they at 65. Those extra 13 years gave their nest egg quite a boost over mine. Also, I had flown so much in my job, I wanted to stay home. We have been to Europe twice, on a cruise, spent time in Florida with friends, and covered most of the Western US on various trips. But, we are both stay-at-home types and very happy to spend most of our time with friends and family.  

Creatively, it took me awhile to find my stride. For the first few years after work I was into not much more than serious puttering. Then, I became active in volunteer work.  I wrote a travel book. I became heavily involved in ham radio. The last year has been spent immersed in my writing and blogging. My wife has developed her photographic editing skills to the point where we may start selling her work on line. She has become Super Grandmother to 3 incredible children.

  • In this comparison I am going to declare a tie.

Health and Preventive Care. This is one critical area in which Mom & Dad  did not do well. My Mom never exercised beyond what she did in a normal day. There was no gym, or walking or stretching program to keep her limber. Growing up our menus were heavy on meat, pasta, and cheese. She almost never drank plain water, but got her liquids primarily from coffee and milk. Her rapid physical decline in the last few years has certainly been accelerated by the poor shape she was in.

Dad has been a little bit better. Never very active or sports-oriented, in the last few years he has taken daily walks of a mile or so. A quintuple heart bypass operation 9 years ago gave him a second chance to be more aware of diet and exercise. At 86 he is still able to do more physically than most men his age.

My wife and I have watched  what has happened to my parents and vowed to approach our older age differently. We have both lost weight, exercise regularly, walk and hike, and go up and down the steps in our house at least 30 times a day. Meat is a rarity in out diet. My wife has cut her medications in half and moved from diabetic back to pre-diabetic status. We drink lots of water and virtually no soft drinks. Maybe because of our poor health insurance, we are doing all we can to prevent costly problems.

  • In this comparison we are much better off in retirement than my parents.

Marriage Mom & Dad have been married for 63 years. For the last twenty of those years they haven't been apart for even one day. They are deeply devoted to each other and very much in love. It is hard to imagine one without immediately thinking of the other. I'm not sure in their own minds if there is an "I" or "me" anymore, it is just "us" and "we."  It is inspiring to experience this type of bond.

I must quickly write that Betty and I have been married for 34 years. I feel we are a stronger couple now than at any time earlier in the marriage. Being together full time for the past ten years has strengthened our love and understanding of each other. Are there still arguments and rough patches? Sure...we are two individuals who have different opinions about almost everything. But, neither of us can imagine a life without the other.

  • In this comparison my parents beat us on longevity and have given us the perfect model to work from.

Foresight. Because this post is getting long, I'll quickly summarize one last area. My parents moved into a continuing care community four years ago while they were still in decent health. Their primary reason for doing so was so I wouldn't have to worry about the quality of their care and their living arrangements when they could no longer take care of themselves.

We are not of the age where that is something we have given much thought to yet, but their self-sacrifice and concern for us will be repeated by us when the time comes so our kids don't need to worry either. 

  • In this comparison my parents gain the edge for their foresight and planning.

As I noted in the opening, I assumed my retirement has been more complete and more satisfying than my parents. After all, I had a 13 year head start on them. But, that belief has been pure self-deception. By almost all measures, Mom & Dad Lowry have had the type of satisfying retirement that I write about, but haven't experienced at their level.

It is good to be humbled every now and then. 

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  1. What fun to hear about two obviously successful retired-life stories! And with such a close competition, there are really no losers - you all know what matters and set a good example for the rest of us. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks, Dave. You are, of course, quite right. This isn't a competition. But, it is good to remind oneself that others have been down this path before.

  3. Hi Bob,

    I enjoyed this whole article, but was particular impressed by your preventative approach to health care. Awesome to say the least! I'm also deeply inspired by your parents foresight in moving into a continuing care community. That's so smart and kind of them.

  4. Thanks for the support, Sandra.

    The foresight of moving from a home they loved into the continuing care village was one of the most important decisions they made. In the last 2 years its support services have proved invaluable as my Mom has suffered a major decline.

    My wife and I certainly plan on the same type of move when the time comes, hopefully at least 20 years in the future.

  5. Great post. My dad recently was musing that his dad retired at 65, and that he retired at 54. I retired at 43. I am curious to see how it all tuns out for me. My grandfather died before I was born, but my dad just hit 70 and is doing well financially and physically.

    I do know that I, like your parents, am counting on my pension and health plan to keep doing what they do. Hopefully I can say they did when I am their age.

  6. Hey Dan,

    At the rate your family is going I assume your kids will retire at 32?

    Being mainly responsible for my own pension means if it doesn't work out the way I hope, the finger points at me. I'm counting on Social Security, but as an add-on source of funds.

    Best of luck on your retirement and keep plugging away at your other site, Being Retired.

  7. I loved that post. I never thought about comparing my retirement with my parents. It is a mixed bag. They never did any of their dreams and I still have hopes.

  8. If we don't learn from the mistakes of the past, we are doomed to repeat them. Someone much smarter than me said that.

    In the same vein, we can learn from what others have done that did work. I benefited from both these situations in thinking through this post.


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