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"What are you gonna do after you retire?" - 2/26/2015

Many of my friends and patients have retired and if you’re anything like them; it’ll be the same song, second or third verse.  The first thing you’re going to do is get everything organized.  That means you’re going to put all your financial information on the computer, make a will, check on your long term health insurance, and lastly, give consideration to downsizing your living space.  It’s an ambitious undertaking, but about six months later you reach a point where mostly everything is just a click away.  Then it’s time for you to determine what you’re gonna do with the rest of your life.  

You’ve undoubtedly heard that when you’re young time moves slowly and when you’re older time moves faster.  One day you’re celebrating New Years and realize that Christmas is only six months away.  Retirement can also reinforce that adage.  Your life can evolve into a series of similar days that pass at the speed of light.  You get out of bed later and go to bed earlier.  In between you work out or walk the mall, have lunch, and rush home for dinner and TV.  After a while you begin to question, “What’s it’s all for?”  But it’s not true.  Life doesn’t have to end after retirement.  Let me tell you about an 83 year old patient I see in therapy, who has grown leaps and bounds since I’ve first met him.  Initially Alan was apathetic, depressed, tremendously over weight, and viewed himself as over the hill.  Since then his mood has drastically improved.  He has renewed energy, appears emotionally invigorating and demonstrates a zest for life.  

Let me state this isn’t an advertisement for therapy.  Nor am I saying that if you buy the magic elixir, in ten days your life is going to totally turn around.  But it’s evident that his life has taken a new direction.  During our initial sessions, Alan spoke about how after retiring, he found himself looking at his world differently.  His wife experienced some illness that interfered with their ability to travel and he felt totally responsible for her.  Consequently, he was reluctant to leave her side.  As a result, he no longer woke up joyful or looked forward to what the day held for him.  He slowly estranged himself from others, rarely socialized and viewed his life as over.  During our last session, he said, “do you see the way I’m dressed?”  “Yes, you look dashing.  His response was, “well this is the way you will see me from now on.  I have a closet full of business clothes, but I stopped wearing them.  I’m not going to wear a blue suit and tie on a daily basis, but this business casual better reflects where I am today.  My only regret is how many hours I’ve wasted thinking about things that I wished I had done, decisions I failed to make, and mistakes I can’t correct.  It made me depressed and the more depressed I felt, the more depressed I acted.  Well that’s over.”  

Please give his words serious consideration, because they illustrate the quintessential feelings and actions that differentiate most old from young, depressed from happy, and optimistic from pessimistic people.  Older people tend to live their lives with thoughts and verbalizations that pretty much include, I should’ve, could’ve, would’ve, done that.  In effect, they live in the past.  In contrast people, regardless of age or sex, who are positive, optimistic, and young at heart live in the present and plan for the future.  Their conversations start with “I’m gonna.”  It’s more than semantics.  It’s an attitude that moves them forward and reinforces the notion that there is still more life they want to experience.  

That’s what I wish for every one of you.  At the same time I recognize that for many of you, the world looks bleak.  You’ve lost spouses and friends who you loved and who filled your time.  Others developed physical problems and now live with stress, loneliness, and depression.   Some days it’s an effort for you to get out of bed.  Sleeping is often the only escape you have or you can’t sleep and the question you ask is, “What’s it all for?  Eventually I’m going to die, that’s one event none of us can avoid, so why bother trying?”    

That’s when my second wish for you comes into play.  It’s that one day, despite all the hardships and challenges you’ve encountered, you’ll be able to sit up and say “it was worth it; every blessed minute of my life was worth it, because while I was here I made a difference.  I reached out and touched others.  I tried to be thoughtful and sensitive.  I listened.  I cared; I shared kind words and was generous with my time.  In total, I loved.  Was I all these things all the time?  No!  There were times I was selfish, anxious, angry, unthinking, and even hostile.  I‘ve made mistakes.  I’ve been negligent, but I always meant well and tried to do better.”

If you can’t say that of your past, I’d have you choose to behave differently in the future.  Even though you’re retired from your job you needn’t retire from living.  Alan learned that.  He now looks forward to what every day has in store for him.  He talks to everyone he encounters.  I’ve seen him interacting in our waiting room with others, both young and old.  Even our secretaries look forward to him coming because he makes a difference.  Well, you too can make a difference.  But you have to get up out of bed, face your fears and live your life positively.  By doing so, you help yourself see that there’s still something you have to contribute.  That’s the primary difference between people who live according to I should’ve, could’ve, would’ve, instead of I’m gonna.  

So the challenge I’d like to pose for each of you, retired or not, is that every morning, you ask yourself, “What am I “gonna” do today, tomorrow or a week from now?  Am I going to frown or smile, call someone or be upset because they didn’t call me, feel cheated because of what I didn’t get in the past or am I “gonna” search for it in the future?  If you can’t come up with an answer, let me suggest one, “I’m gonna get active, reach out, touch, talk to, and interact with other because life doesn’t end when you retire or get old.    

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