I haven’t written a blog in quite a while, but after Ruth received some wonderful feedback at a party she attended this week — thank you, Russell, for giving me the nudge I needed! — I have decided to plug in the old Smith Corona, shake out my fingers, and get back to work — which, coincidentally, is my blog topic for today. My good friend, Rob, is retiring this week, but before he did, we had the opportunity to talk about this whole retirement gig, including some of his trepidations about it, which naturally cascaded into additional introspection about my own retirement two years ago. This past week I worked at CMC Pineville for two long weekends over the Christmas holiday period and, no, I’m not doing ad hoc weekends as an alternative to filing for food stamps — Although I must say, now that I’m retired and occasionally find myself in a grocery store, I’m shocked at how expensive food has gotten! — I decided to go back to doing hospital work on an occasional basis for many reasons, and I thought today’s musings could prove to be good information for newbie retirees whenever that label becomes applicable to you…
Consider something as simple and basic as your name. I have been called “Dr. Scherr” since my first year of medical school, way back in 1975. Back then, even lowly medical students were always referred to as “Doctor.” When I thought about it, I realized that encompasses my entire adult life! Once I retired, I was still now and again called “Dr. Scherr,” but I didn’t feel like a doctor. I was a golfer, a gardener, a poker player, a volunteer health insurance navigator, and a fisherman—but not a physician — not any longer, anyway. I quickly realized that it’s exactly this intrinsic loss of identity that is the most difficult part of retirement for me. I have certainly learned to fill my days with activities that I enjoy and people whose company I (mostly) get to choose, and I definitely relish and embrace the lack of stress associated with not working. But not feeling like a doctor, not feeling needed — and valued — in the capacity that was my professional life, is a much bigger adjustment than I ever anticipated. I certainly have more time and energy now to help guide my friends through the minefield of modern day medicine with their individual medical problems, and the rewards derived from the sincerity of their outspoken appreciation is enormous, but it is honestly not the same as having your opinions and your expertise truly needed on a daily, actually hourly, basis. I have spent some time volunteering at a free medical clinic that sees internal medicine patients, but I haven’t practiced outside of a hospital with acutely ill patients since the 90’s. Office-based medicine is not what I know how to do best anymore, and I found that I sincerely missed the underlying high-energy heartbeat of a top-notch acute care hospital. I trained to be an ACA Navigator to assist people in getting insurance through the Affordable Care Act, and I have found this endeavor to be very rewarding. But as rewarding as my volunteer work is, it, too, is not what I have been doing for 50+ hours per week for the last 35 years. I finally had to face an inescapable fact: I missed being a physician.
It’s dangerous to generalize, but it seems to me that when a person retires from a career that they have been successfully and happily doing for most of their life, the void that is left in the composition of their identity can be excruciating. The loss of the camaraderie that you took for granted between you and your coworkers adds to the emotional complexity of retirement. The nurses, physicians, administrators, social workers and secretaries that were a part of my every day — from the simple “Good morning Dr. Scherr! How are you doing?” to the more complex and fraught “How much did you enjoy your Falcons thrashing the Panthers on Sunday?” is gone. There is often a significant amount of isolation associated with retirement. The people that you were so close to, for so long, lose contact with you, even though you all swear that won’t happen. When you retire, you cross a previously unspoken and undefined line — they’re still in the trenches and you, Buddy, are not. Suddenly, you are no longer on the same team, fighting for the same wins. Your golf and poker buddies — along with the time for increased contact with your spouse and your kids — make up for some of this, but it is not the same. There is a relationship in a work environment that is built on a partnership not found in recreational activities. I was a part of a team and now I am not. I miss that, and so will you.
By the time you retire, your children will have — hopefully — successfully managed to separate from you both physically and, to an extent, emotionally, and they just don’t need you, or your input, nearly as much as they did when they were growing up. While I love being an empty nester, I miss not being as involved in my children’s lives, and I doubt I’ll ever get used to hearing the details of crucial events in their lives only weeks after they occur. Not being needed hardly at all is the mark of your children’s successful transition to adulthood — what we all want for our children — but believe me, while you celebrate their success, you just simply miss that daily catch-up on the details of their lives that you took for granted over the dinner table every night for so many years.
And your own health starts to become an issue. There is little as frustrating to me as not being able to read a menu in a nice restaurant when I have forgotten my reading glasses and have to turn on the super-bright flashlight that my cell phone can produce. Ruth hates it when I turn on that light so I can see the menu printed in 5-point type that only 21-year olds can see — she says it screams to the entire restaurant ” OLD PEOPLE OVER HERE!” — but I do it anyway. (Does she want me to starve?) But these kinds of vision changes are only the tip of the age-related iceberg; the aches and pains that develop in joints and muscles from doing the simplest things, tasks you’ve accomplished with ease your whole life, are a constant reminder of the aging process. And then, one day, we eventually develop the significant medical problem that starts our gradual or, God forbid, rapid descent into ill health or old age.
But let me not get too gloomy! There are lots of positives in retiring and aging. When I was a child I had plenty of time but many restrictions on what I could do. As I grew up, my free time grew more precious and my financial resources were more limited. These days, as a retiree who saved and planned well, I have both the time and the money to do what I enjoy doing. And I do! It was a shock to realize I will never again go on a vacation — since a vacation involves time off from work — but I can go on trips almost any time we choose. Traveling is one of our top priorities in retirement, and we truly enjoy it, so we travel frequently, often to see our grandsons who, by the way, are remarkably easier than raising your own children and add an inexpressible joy as well as a new depth to your life. I enjoy playing golf, taking naps whenever I feel like it, and eating at 9pm, if that’s when I’m hungry. There’s no longer much difference between a Tuesday or a Saturday, except it’s definitely easier to get a tee time on a Tuesday. This palpable, quantifiable lack of stress in my life is something I haven’t felt for as long as I can remember. What a feeling of freedom! I really do like being retired. But I also really miss not working. Aaah, the duality of life!
So what do I advise my retiring friends? I remind them that every Big Life Stage comes with a printed warning on the label: Retirement is great, but it doesn’t come without a price. Go into it with the knowledge that this will be the biggest change in your life since your first child was born or you started your career. Make sure you do the fun things in life that you have put off, and do them as soon as you can, because no one gets a guarantee about tomorrow. Work on your personal relationships — enjoy your family and friends and make certain you don’t become socially isolated, probably more of an issue for men than women because of the inherent differences in gendered social needs. Maybe that is just a sexist preconception (Rebekah? Comments?) but I see this as a definite risk factor in many of my male friends. My biggest advice is this: if it is at all possible, continue to do some of the things you that you did professionally. Do them in smaller bites and on your own terms, but acknowledge that this work is what made you who you are for so many years. And if that need is left unfilled, it can grow and fester into a true identity crisis.
As I disclosed at the start of this blog, I worked at CMC Pineville over the Christmas holidays. Just like I have worked the Christmas holidays for over 35 years. And it was a double bonus — not only was it a help for my physician partners, but it made me feel like me again. And for that, I am very grateful.
Happy 2016 to all of you. Please pass this on, comment, let me know what you’re thinking when you read my thoughts. That’s what keeps people writing!
- The Cancer of Fee for Service
- Drugs Just Cost Too Much