I believe there are three phases of retirement.
The FIRST PHASE is usually what one is being chosen to do. For many of us retirement is a formal step when one can begin to collect accumulated funds set aside for this time in life. It does matter that one passes a mandatory date when one’s options begin to be set by rules. However, many of us have extended careers for which we are recruited. It is good advice to not just “retire from” but also to have a plan that includes “retiring to” something meaningful.
Examples: A good friend of mine retired several years ago but has continued in the very same position until this week. She will now be entering phase two. Another good friend would have liked to continue in his position, but did not get a chance to do so. He took a series of short-term positions that were equivalent to his life-long career. A pastor in Illinois retired to do interim pastoral stints. I have heard of a man who retired from a career with the railroad to run a model railroad in the St. Louis Zoo.
Exceptions: Some people begin this sort of consultancy or interim work before getting to the age where compensation is secondary. I know an engineer who took a “golden parachute” into retirement at 45 years of age, and now is a free-lance engineer with his own company. Some would say he has not really retired, but his portfolio says he is independent. My dad skipped this phase and went straight into full retirement.
The SECOND PHASE is what one chooses to do. This is often thought of as “real” or “full” retirement. It may be entirely different from one’s professional career. Hobbies and social relationships can become the focus during this phase of retirement. It takes mental and spiritual dexterity to discover something significantly meaningful in the midst of a plethora of activities that are plainly enjoyable.
Examples: My dad retired to go fishing. Many go fishing in retirement, but Dad retired in order to do it. He made that his main endeavor for several years. A former pastor of my home church retired to do landscape painting and to write articles for church journals. I am now in this phase and I have written everything I planned on writing when I fully retired, and am now writing just for the fun of it. I believe my brother and his wife can be said to have entered full retirement in order to travel around to as many state and national parks and forests as they can. That’s Dan, my brother, in the picture above.
Exceptions: Some people have a chance to choose to do what they have done in some form or other so the line is blurred between phase one and phase two for them. Others go from phase one (continuing to work) into phase three, due to a sudden medical crisis. I know of a couple whose carefree plans for retirement were abruptly changed when they had to take over raising two more children.
The THIRD PHASE is what one has no choice about. One always has choices, but when the range becomes limited by what works best to handle health and physical circumstances, one has come to the third phase of retirement. Phase three is when the controlling factor is how to handle one’s health and safety. For some, this means a change of residence, but for others it is more a change of perspective. The greatest challenge is to ascribe meaningful significance to this phase of sustaining one’s self. Only those who have developed a solid spiritual base can do it.
Examples: Mom spent several years as a senior-citizens’ ombudsman, after retiring from teaching kindergarten. The time came when she just took a room in the retirement center so her meals and medications could be handled dependably. The wife of a good friend from long ago is now in advanced dementia and her life is supported and sustained by professionals. A friend here in town has just moved into “assisted living” after falling several times and being unable to get back up, once in the bathroom where he could have drowned. A lot of retirement institutions have 3 or 4 levels of care to accommodate levels of need.
Exceptions: It is quite obvious that some people need assistance and support long before getting to an age that could be called retirement. That is, medical and physical circumstances can begin to compel responses at other times in life. “Normally”, we think, we will get old before we have to rearrange our life plan to handle things like that. Many of us, like my dad, never get to phase three. He took his medicine and didn’t let his health concerns impact his plans to go fishing in the warm south. For others, as is the case with Pramote’s father, extended family provides nearly constant care. But his life is impacted by his health and his daily life is bounded by these issues. Let me insist, however, that it would be very wrong to think of phase three as terminal or lingering. Phase three has just as many thrilling and fulfilling possibilities as other times of life may have.
CONCLUSIONS: It has been helpful to me to think of retirement as having three phases. But as with other discussions of ages and stages in life, there are exceptions. Even more frequently, there are incremental steps from one phase to another. Finally, age is an artificial measure of one’s progress through life. It is conditions and circumstances that matter most.
POSTSCRIPT: What are coming generations going to do if they are prevented from developing the capacity to build toward retirement? The rules are changing. It is already almost impossible in the USA for those in their career prime to accumulate funds to manage the sort of retirement I have described.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.