October 4, 2019

What Is An Active Retirement?


Not too long ago a reader asked me to pose a question to you: what makes an "active retirement?"  She wondered if we bring a meaning to the concept of active that is too restrictive. 

Ar first, the response seemed rather obvious: being busy with activities, going to the gym, traveling, volunteer work, creative pursuits...anything other than planting oneself in front of a TV and binge-watching Netflix. Especially during retirement, we have fewer obligations and limits on what we do, so we can be active, both physically and mentally, to our heart's content, or our body's limits.




On reflection, her question is really not that simple. Who determines what active means? How much do we have to do to not feel we are wasting our time and potential? Or, is part of the joy of retirement the freedom to do little that is productive, instead focusing on pleasing ourselves, whatever that might mean? 


From a post of a few months ago, reader Tom said that sometimes I make retirement seem too much like a job...constant busyness. His comment is really in line with the question: who determines what an active retirement is? What does that phrase even mean?

Is enjoying the company of friends active enough? How about a walk around the neighborhood to pick up any litter. Does that qualify as volunteering? Is reading a new novel on the back patio active enough? Do I have to break a sweat to be active? Must there always be a goal, with checkoff boxes for me to chart my progress? Must travel involve a passport, plane flight, and foreign cultures to count? 





Really, what is being asked is how does one quantify a retirement journey. What must occur for retirement to be a "success." If we don't have the "appropriate" answer when someone asks what we do, are we going to be embarrassed? Will we question our chosen path? 


These questions are excellent ones for this blog. After 9 years of studying, thinking, living, and writing about retirement, I know what my answer is to the original question and Tom's follow up statement. 


I will readily admit my answer today is much different than it would have been when I retired in June, 2001. It is different than my answer even 5 years ago. That is the thing about this stage of life: everything is evolving, all the time. 



The answer to a problem or opportunity isn't good forever. Heavens, it might not be valid next week. Our desires change. Our bodies certainly start speaking more loudly to us, demanding we pay attention to what they are telling us.

Our relationships are never static. Try treating your 13 year old grandson the same way you did when he as 5 and see how that works. Assume your relationship with your spouse or best friend hasn't changed in twenty, thirty, or forty years and troubles are likely in your future.

So, now I will ask you. Does the phrase "active retirement" make sense? What constitutes an active retirement? Does your answer change over time? If you are finding your body rebels at the 10 mile runs that used to start your day, have you redefined what active means? If you can still run all those miles but choose not to, do you still consider what you do to be active?

Should "active" even be part of our description of a satisfying retirement? Does it really matter?

Lots to consider. I am really eager to read what you have to say. The bottom line is we are attempting to define what makes a satisfying retirement.  


35 comments:

  1. Out of curiosity, I just looked up the definition of the word "active." Merriam-Webster provides 14 definitions, many of which would be applicable to today's post. If Merriam-Webster can't provide a quick and easy explanation, it's no wonder that the word and how it applies to retirement raises so many questions.

    Personally, I think that there are no wrong answers to the question, "What constitutes an active retirement?" And I would be hard pressed to answer that question for anyone other than myself. My retirement is completely different from anyone else's, even if we enjoy passing time in many of the same ways.

    One person's active is another's impossible. And who is to say that both are not satisfied?

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    1. You are absolutely right, Mary. Each journey is unique. Defining an active retirement is really a task each of us undertakes. I think the key is to not question what we are doing if someone else's retirement seems to be more exciting or daring or....whatever. We are living how we choose, and are free to change at any time.

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  2. It sounds like an easy-to-answer question at first read but it really isn't, is it. I've been too active my entire 20 years of retirement...first as a full time caregiver to my husband then in recent years trying to cram in all the social activities I couldn't do in my 12 1/2 of taking care of a wheelchair bound spouse. But those forced activities were not all that satisfying. Now, I'm heavy into downsizing to move to a brand new community where I think my retirement will finally start for real.

    I recently had a young person tell me she admired me for being so active socially and I think I looked at her like she had holes in her brain. Being active does not necessarily translate to being satisfied with the outcome. As much as I wanted to, I didn't tell her that. I just accepted the compliment in the spirit it was offered.

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    1. "Being active does not necessarily translate to being satisfied with the outcome." THIS!

      I have a friend who is frantic socially. She let's me know of every small activity she engages in. I'm quite sure she feels it's a competition. At first I thought I was doing something wrong, now I feel sorry for her.

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    2. When the question was first posed to me I thought the answer would be rather straightforward, too. Active means not letting the grass grow under our feet, right?

      Well, no. "Active" can be connected to something physical, mental, spiritual, relational...almost any part of life. And, active doesn't necessarily imply obvious forward momentum, either.

      I am glad for the question. It is an important one for all of us.

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  3. I think for me, “active” retirement means “engaged.” I wake up and I embrace the days/.There is always more going on in life than I can partake of! I have some planned activities I attend every week.. I look for new movies,, new events happening in my town, and I keep in touch with my friends to attend some of them on a regular basis. Ken and I are going to a local church Greek Festival with friends tonight. Going to the library, discussing the news with my card playing girlfriends, all constitute “active” retirement to me. Now,PHYSICALLY active is another story—I go up and down with exercise, it is hard to keep a regular schedule, but I keep trying. We do spontaneously decide to hike every couple of weeks, or pull out the kayak. I think an active retirement is defined by what active means to an individual..for some, a quieter life can still be active and engaged, for some bloggers I have read, if they don’t have hikes and RV trips and social events every day of the year, they feel like slackers! LOL! Exhausting!

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    1. This post is your fault...just kidding. You asked me to delve a bit into the idea of an "active' retirement and what that means. Thank you. It is generating some interesting responses.

      For several years Betty and I tried to keep pace with a few couples we know who are very active. But, that just wasn't us. Over the last 3-4 years we have found a style that fits where we are at the moment.

      I just bought tickets for a few movies at the upcoming Scottsdale Film Festival. We went to a concert with the Phoenix symphony last week and will go again in the spring. Hale theater's Brigadoon is coming up next year. Next week...an Arizona Fall League baseball game is on tap.

      Throw in a few easy hikes and we are quite comfortable with the pace of this approach to our retirement years.

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    2. Sounds perfect to me,Bob. I had to get over the constant traveling as a feature of a happy retirement, that a lot of blogs on retirements seemed to feature.. we did a lot of traveling when we worked.. now, it’s such a luxury to be able to be at home!!And pursue all our hobbies right here. We do enjoy getaways and even some exotic trips (Thailand coming up!) but like you and Betty, our daily life right here in Az. Is pretty active.. !

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  4. Although these days I have a more active social life than I have had in awhile, my feeling in general is that many people try way to hard to be continually doing and going. I sometimes think there is this fear of simply "being". On any given week I am out of the house for three social like events minimum. And I attempt to be physical active and enjoy vacationing a few times a year. I even have a blog coming up that is about social butterfly-ing on a budget. But an equal if not a greater amount of time is spent in relaxed traditional retirement lifestyle like today. I need alot of relaxed style downtime. Like Madeline, I read about and know bloggers and real people who literally plan their days for full activity all day every day. That is not my lifestyle and as I have aged I realize my retirement is becoming more and more like that of my parents...which is fine.

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    1. We are not very social beings and never have been. Betty and I are quite comfortable alone-together or sharing something we both like. We enjoy time with friends, but don't spend hours on Meetup trying to find new social things we can do.

      You have made a good point: After several years of long road trips and European jaunts, my parents slowed down. They found more enjoyment staying close to home and being involved with their family.

      Humans are rather adaptable. We can change how we find satisfaction and feel fulfillment in so many different ways.

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  5. When I was a social worker in a nursing home an "active participant" was somebody who went to activities. It could be a sing along for the demented and the resident could have been sharper than us but if they didn't go they were written up in state notes as a "passive observer." But those people could have spent their days in the doorframe of their room talking to all staff, giving advice, being totally engaged in "real life." But according to their notes they weren't particpating in activities so they might as well not have gotten out of bed. I learned not to judge. I agree that active=engaged, and what engages one person might not engage another

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    1. Nursing home activity is an interesting subject. As you note, some folks might be very "active" but not following the daily social calendar.

      At the same time, it is important to be sure someone isn't holed up in their room, suffering from depression or some ailment that is preventing them from involvement. Forced activity isn't helpful, but neither is not seeing a problem.

      Personally, I believe those who work in nursing or hospice centers are deserving of all our support. Those are difficult conditions, but the people I was exposed to with my parents were loving and truly cared about Mom and Dad.

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  6. I wonder if we ought to stop using "active" retirement and think more about a "healthy" or "balanced" retirement?

    Are you getting enough: social time, "me" or alone/down time, sleep, volunteer time (which might include caring for grandchildren), exercise, proper meals/nutrition, fun/fulfilling activities, etc.? Is your time properly balanced over a week or month among these items?

    While the amount of each of these might change from month to month and also as we get older and health intrudes on our time it seems to me that more than "active" a balanced retirement would be a good goal to shoot for.

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    1. I agree, Bob. "Active" retirement is so open to interpretation and even misuse, that the concept isn't helpful. It forces some people to go-go when they would be happier quietly enjoying the day unfolding. Others, feel bad because they are happy with peace and quiet but are worried about missing out.

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  7. Hmm...I feel my dear husband and I are definitely in an active retirement. We do not even turn on tv until after 6 pm (news junkie). We exercise every day...yoga, biking, pickleball, walking, weights. All to avoid taking pills of any sort. We also eat a mainly plant based diet, which involves plenty of research for new recipes. I belong to two book clubs as well as reading some of the same books as my spouse. We occasionally watch grandchildren and travel to see them all. Only two out of eight live in our state. We travel 2 or 3 times per year but traveling is not my favorite. Florida to see friends and relatives in winter months, some local short trips, and one European trip every year or so. We also volunteer at our local land trust. All activities meant to keep us healthy, hopefully. We spend a day or 2 working in yard or doing inside chores as well. We do love to go out to lunch and museums and plays as well as gather with friends a few times per month. We tend to be loners in terms of friends though. Probably not the best idea! Great question.

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    1. Thank you for your contribution to our discussion. Yes, you and hubby certainly would be part of the usual definition of an active retirement. Obviously, you do all of it because you like to and you are healthy and financially able to do so. Great!

      I'll venture to guess that when it comes time for you two to slow down a bit because of health or simply because you want to, you will find just what you need to remain satisfied.

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  8. When non-retired people ask me, "How's retirement?" I tell them that I'm keeping myself physically and mentally active. Most of the time, nothing more is asked. Sometimes, someone will then ask what I do, and I start to respond with some of my activities, and they usually lose interest.

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    1. Most of time when someone asked that question they have one of two motivations: they are jealous and can't wait to be able to call themselves retired, or they hope you are unhappy so they feel good about still working!

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  9. However we chose to define our level of retirement activity, let's not forget this succinct Marthe Troly-Curtin quote: "Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time."

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    1. And the key word in that quote is "enjoy." That's what keeps time from being wasted.

      BTW, I gather you are ham. I am a K7 and enjoy a weekly net focused on music and TV shows of the 60s.

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  10. I've been working CW for a while now, Bob--although not exactly at breath taking speeds--but I'll see if i can find my mike and locate your net information through QRZ or ARRL My apologies to those who may not know what we're talking about. Your thoughts on retirement are great. 73

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    1. It is a net on 220, through a repeater in Tucson, but also on an Echolink node, so hams can participate from anywhere. It happens Wednesday evenings at 6:30pm MST. The node is KA7LFX-R.

      My regular readers know I am a ham radio operator so they will tolerate our exchange! K7UNL.

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  11. There's a ying and a yang in life that I didn't fully experience until retirement. Last night we were front row center at a concert of a musician I've admired for years. This morning, I stepped outside to admire a beautiful sunset, hearing an owl hooting from the canyon behind us as I did so. Completely different levels of activity, but I relish them both equally.

    As so many have already said, what defines an active retirement is unique to each individual. When I choose wisely, based on my particular needs, there is a sense of well being, and when I do not (pretty much anything I do mindlessly), the opposite seems to occur. I much prefer the former, so I continue to work at my ret accordingly.

    And I do definitely subscribe to the statement 'Use it or lose it!' with regard to physical movements as I get older. Which, not coincidentally, is why I was up early enough today to catch the sunrise. I'm meeting a group shortly, to start training for walking the Camino in Spain this next summer. As my 84 year old, and still very active, father continues to tell me, 'Tamara, you can rest when you're dead!'

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    1. Dad is right. How we define "rest" is the key!

      Now that the sun is not coming up at 5AM I am actually seeing the first lightening of the sky at a more dignified 6:15. At this time of year our sunrises and sunsets tend to be quite orange, due I guess to the angle of the sun through the atmosphere. Whatever the scientific reason, we know it is October when it happens, and it is gorgeous.

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    2. Tamara, I totally agree with you regarding choices and their results. It doesn't matter whether the choices involve activities, food or the company I keep. The good choices do much to enhance my life.

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  12. I have the word "active" as a descriptor of my ideal retirement.... and I like the phrase that RickNH used - keeping mentally and physically active! Given that I had no exercise program, a limited friends circle (beyond work colleagues), and no hobbies pre-retirement, active for me is everything from daily movement (try with a FitBit and yoga classes) to getting out & about with friends.... whether it's a "walk & talk" or a "whine and wine". I guess I'm defining my own level of active... and trying not to compare it with others. I do engage in most activities not to master them but to enjoy them. I also recognize the need to balance doing (active) with being. I recently posted both about "being un-busy" and "having a seasonal action plan" - truly the balance of being and doing!

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    1. I'd enjoy treading what you have written. Can you either post a link or send it to me by email?

      My attempts at both painting and guitar playing are good examples of what you say about enjoying something without needing to master it. I enjoy both pursuits but understand a showing at the Phoenix Art Museum or a concert at Carnegie Hall are not in my future, and I am just fine with that.

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  13. Interesting question and discussion. I'll only add that I think being "active" has to involve other people in some way, even if only in minor terms -- making an impact by cooperating with others, competing against others, volunteering to help others -- some action and reaction. So by my lights, reading a book is not active, but taking part in a book discussion is; playing a video game is not active, but playing tennis is. Make sense?

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    1. Yes, it does. For example, reading a book is very enjoyable to me. I think of that as an active choice I make. But, to be active, as in the verb sense, would involve more.

      Interesting but important distinction...thanks, Tom.

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  14. I am now two years into retirement. I am finding that, after gradually adding various activities to my life, I have reached the point of being "sufficiently" active, at least for now. I know that because my wife and I now look at the schedule for our upcoming week and occasionally see a day with no commitments, no place we really have to be. And we breathe a sigh of relief. It makes us appreciate the downtime more. In the early days of retirement, the no commitment days outnumbered the active days, and that was okay because it was needed to recover from thirty-some years of stress.

    While we enjoy the busy days because the activities are those we choose rather than those which are forced on us by our jobs, we do enjoy days like today. We are lounging with our laptops and adult beverages, and I am still actively learning what makes retired people tick. And that's a good thing.

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    1. Finding the balance between a busy calendar and open time is something all retirees must go through. The usual pattern is to become over-committed and then realize your day feels too much like a work day. So, you cut back until you become bored.

      Each of us has a different mix of busy/relaxed days that makes us happy. And, truth be told, that mix changes over time. What feels like a good balance today will feel off at some point in the future.

      Luckily, retirement is when you are free to adjust to match your needs.

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  15. I was just talking about this very question with a friend last night. "Active" doesn't always mean "doing," at least in my way of thinking. To me, active means engaged. I can be engaged in something very physical like martial arts, and I can be just as active reading in my recliner or meditating.

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    1. Engaged is a good word to describe activity. I just finished guitar practice, an activity that requires active engagement with the instrument.

      Then, I picked up a biography of Vincent Van Gogh that I have enjoying for the last few weeks. My engagement with his life story if very different than with the guitar, but just as satisfying.

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  16. Such an interesting topic and discussion. Madeline's comments especially resonated for me. Even before I read them, I was already thinking that my personal goal was less about an "active retirement" and more about an "engaged life." For me being engaged with others and with the world also means taking the time and space to be engaged with the natural world around me. It's important to me to be socially connected with others and to be intellectually engaged, but I also consider it important to set aside time for doing "nothing" -- to look out the window at birds and changing leaves and clouds and stars, to turn off all the lights in the house and watch a winter full moon rising through the trees, to watch a newborn monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis and unfold its wings, to lie awake in bed on a warm fall night and listen to owls calling. For me, too much activity can be the enemy of being truly engaged.

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    1. I am pleasantly surprised this post has resonated with so many. Onviously, the whole concept of retirement is to find the right mix of things we do. Certainly, I have a new appreciation for the way each of us define what "activities" make up that list.

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