When you imagine the rest of your life after 50, do you see a boat, a sports car, a summer home, cruising the Amazon or climbing Kilimanjaro or finding a thatched cottage in the Caribbean to curl up and write your memoir?
Have you also factored in the cost of a grown child’s wedding, the travel costs to see your scattered children and grandkids, and the grandbaby who turns four before you know it and will need about $10,000 for a good pre-K school? The question is not just how long do you want to work, but how long do you need to work? And I mean ‘need’ not just in the sense of financial need, but the need to have colleagues to talk to, phone calls to return, and the feeling of being valued.
Most women have learned a great deal about how to set goals for our First Adulthood and how to roll with the punches when we hit a rough passage. But we’re less prepared for our Second Adulthood as we approach life after retirement, where there are no fixed entrances or exits, and lots of sand into which it is easy to bury our heads. Many of us turn into Ostriches. We may be totally rational when we look at a profit and loss statement in business. But we don’t like to look at our personal assets and project out the changes in profit when we’re no longer working full tilt, or the possibility that digitalization will make our former job obsolete, or the cost of caring for Dad when Mom dies. We don’t really want to look at what’s right in front of us: another 30 or 40, even possibly 50 years of life to be financed and filled with meaningful activities and the necessity to replenish relationships.
I’m guilty of being an Ostrich. I keep returning to the central question facing over-50 women as we move into our Second Adulthood. What are our goals for this stage in our lives? There really are no more “shoulds.” Our parents and mentors and bosses don’t have much to say about our choices at this stage. A spouse, if we have one, might be one of the Worried Well—people who always anticipate the worst and save for a rainy day and buy the most expensive long-term care insurance; they may even prepay for pet burial. These people will never run out of money. I’m not one of them.
Financial planners tell me there are many more Ostriches than Worried Well, even among the very affluent. A successful single person who figures she will cut back to half-time work at 66 and retire completely at 70 may think assets worth a million plus her house are enough to last the rest of her life. But once she cuts her income in half by working part-time, and cost of living goes up five percent a year, the pink cloud begins to go gray. She will have to pay taxes on the money she takes out of her individual retirement account (IRA). If she continues with the same lifestyle and spending habits, like buying $500 boots, and she wants to help pay for her son to go to medical school, she may run out of money before she’s 80. That’s when the staggering cost of long-term care for chronic illness or disability kicks in. She may be stunned, as are so many people, to learn that Medicare does not pay for long-term care.
Of course, adapting to our Second Adulthood is not all about the money. It requires thinking about how to find a new locus of identity, or how to adjust to a spouse who stops working, and who may loll enjoying coffee and reading the paper online while you’re still commuting. This calls for a new division of responsibilities before resentment sets in. Many retired men find pleasure in becoming showoff chefs or beloved coaches. What if the couple has sunk into a settled groove and both are just going through the motions? Yes it’s uncomfortable to change chairs. But to find a new passion, especially together, can make you feel young again. It can even make you fall in love all over again. I know.
It happened for my husband and me when we uprooted our lives in our sixties and moved across the country to start again. His career as an editor had wound down. Sure, we started off in a three-room faculty apartment fighting over the single bathroom. But we also found an outdoor running track that overlooked San Francisco Bay and an ocean with no finite horizons. That’s when I began writing my book, Passages in Caregiving. Before we changed, my husband had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Five years after we changed, the lymphoma was gone and never returned. My husband had a bonus life of 15 years as a teacher-guru.
Spontaneity, the hallmark of childhood, is well worth cultivating to counteract the rigidity that may otherwise set in as we grow older. I’m thinking of a male friend of mine, who in his early sixties had two divorces behind him and was settled into retirement and bachelorhood. But the much-younger woman he was seeing, and loving, insisted that she wanted to get married and have a child. Spontaneously, he said, “Sure, why not?” Today, as a widower in his early eighties, the light of his life is his 22-year old son. The widower’s road map had to be redrawn, to go back to work as a freelance editor. That will pay for the pleasure of seeing his son through law school.
I found Bart Astor’s new book, AARP Roadmap For The Rest Of Your Life (which can be found on Amazon or on the AARP website), very helpful in breaking down the right questions to consider before making the passage from a fulltime career into an entrepreneurial enterprise, or before going into business with a son or daughter. A recognized expert on life transitions, Astor walks the reader through manageable steps.
Adapted from Ms. Sheehy’s introduction to AARP Roadmap For the Rest of Your Life by Bart Astor.