My father will mark his 89th birthday on December 10. And, as I composed my thoughts on Ezra Klein’s thoughts about why many folks choose to retire as soon as benefits kick in, my thoughts turned to my father’s retirement decisions. A mechanic and small business owner for most of his life, my father sold his business at age 62. My father, and my mother until she died two years ago, lived frugally, supplementing social security checks with savings invested in a stock market that rose and fell and left them feeling perpetually insecure about money. Nonetheless, the decision to retire was never a regret. I see my father as one of those workers Klein described – from my vantage point, he seemed to have lived a life of quiet desperation, trying to stay afloat financially, juggling employees who made little emotional investment in his business, working long hours and rarely taking vacations. He, however, represented himself as “independent,” his own man, doing what he wanted, and not like those he employed. Still the decision to retire as soon as he was entitled to social security benefits suggests that, perhaps, his independence was not as gratifying as he wanted to believe.
When my father retired he welcomed the “rewards” of unencumbered time. And he filled that time with such unexpected activities. He made a garden, reading seed catalogs and harvesting annually a pantry full of tomatoes, peppers, beans, onions, garlic, zucchini. He taught himself to cook by watching “Emeril” and cooking shows (and he is still, at 89, adventurous in the kitchen and an avid reader of cookbooks). Until he retired, my father could be found in the kitchen only when a meal was on the table! He worked part-time for a brief period in a sporting goods store and took up golfing as a complement to the bowling he’d been doing since his youth. He became a ham radio operator in earnest, visiting places over the air that he would never visit in person. He turned to refinishing furniture – took beat-up pieces found in junk stores and turned them into new family heirlooms. And he shifted his mechanic’s eye from the car to the computer, learning more than the basics and teaching himself to integrate computer and ham radio. (Now, as he sits in the hospital with his Kindle, the nursing staff remark that he’s about the only patient of that age they’ve seen with any electronic device). I am sometimes in awe of the energy he put into his retirement. For him, retirement was the good life with rewards, at least until a few years ago, when my mother became incapacitated and he assumed the care-giver role.
And that brings me to the present. His retirement identity has been superseded by “old age.” Declining health has sapped his energy, my mother’s death has left him lonely, and the move from his house to a small apartment in an “independent living community” has torn away much that was familiar and left him feeling very “dependent.” “This is not what I expected,” not what he “bargained for,” are sentiments he’s voiced more than once in the past few months. My father, and so many like him, was psychologically ready for retirement. But he was not psychologically ready for “old age.”
I do not know how to help him with this transition, short of running errands, trying not to make decisions without consulting him, and providing an ear for his concerns as he works his way through senescence. But I am mindful of the change and mindful that “retirement” is not the last transition that I will face.