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Making a Good Life in Retirement

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An acquaintance, looking to discuss his recent unsought retirement, emailed to arrange lunch. His efforts to deal with retirement, he said, have been “futile” so far and he hopes my “advice will inspire” him.

Oy vey. Advice is not an item on my resume.

Two or three weeks ago I published a story here about how retirement is a good time to discover being in a world that prizes doing. It was a useful enough post but it doesn't cover the larger, existential shift from career to the next stage of life.

I'm probably not far off to say that about 99 percent of the 21 million results in a Google search, “planning for retirement,” is about finance and almost all of those are aimed at people who have both money to save or invest and many more years to do it.

But there are a lot more ways to arrive at retirement than planning for it. I'm one of them, one of the people who was age-discriminated (is that a verb?) out of the workforce long before I had intended.

And that was five years before 2008 when tens of millions of U.S. workers much younger than I were laid off 15, 20 or more years before their expected retirement date. Millions of them have never again worked in their fields nor for anywhere near the salary they had been making before the crash.

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So they were forced to retire only halfway through their expected career span living now on god knows what money or are eking out their years at minimum wage jobs until they are old enough for Social Security.

(An excellent piece of reporting on the latter circumstance can be found in a story titled “Too Poor to Retire and Too Young to Die” at the Los Angeles Times.)

But today, I'm concerned with the people in the middle, people like the friend I'm having lunch with next week and me and a lot of TGB readers: that is, people who may or may not have been surprised at finding themselves retired one day, who likely had to cut back expenditures but are not in dire monetary straits.

As I've related here more than once, I was lucky. I had begun this blog a year or so before I was laid off. It wasn't all smooth sailing – I flailed around working out money and living arrangements, and how to order my days without an outside schedule. But essentially I glided from a writing/editing web job with a four-hour, round-trip commute to a writing/editing web job with a two-minute commute, and it is still satisfying after 13 years at it.

In no way, when I started TimeGoesBy, did I have an inkling that it would become my main retirement interest - it was simple luck - and most people hit with unexpected retirement aren't even that well prepared.

Before settling into a new life, there are the practical realities, of course: money, location, healthcare. Once those are arranged, however, what comes next? What do I want to do with my time now? What will get me out of bed each morning? The questions are mostly short but hardly simple. Here are a few:

What gives me pleasure?
What do I most care about?
Can I use my career experience in new ways now?
What's been missing from my life?
What have I always dreamed about doing?
What gives me a sense of purpose?
What and who are most important to me?
What does an ideal day look like?

There are many others and the hard part is that no one can answer for you.

So for those of you who have already navigated to a satisfying life in retirement, how did you do that? And for those of you who haven't got there yet, how are you thinking about it? Or, maybe, what questions are you pondering?

Remember, this isn't about whether to move to a new city, state or country. Or whether to sell your home or what are the best investments for old people.

Instead, how did you or will you address these existential or life questions. How did you decide how to live these last years – maybe decades – in the most satisfying way for you?

This is important stuff for all older people and there may be hints in your thoughts for the rest of us.

Comments

We began talking retirement options when we were in our 40's, my husband had "retired" after 21 years in the military. What did we want from life now? It was decided that time was more important than money--not that we didn't need it, but we didn't need to be "rich" either. So we both worked and socked away every cent we could, picked where we wanted to spend the rest of our life and retired in our mid-fifties.
That was 14 years ago and those 14 years have been among the happiest of our lives. We love retirement.
We do whatever we want and avoid most of the things we don't want to do. My husband is an artist who paints and sells his paintings on a regular basis and I putter at my own speed. Life is good.

I think it is just like the professional athletes, you have to plan for your life beyond whatever is your profession.
While I still work full-time, retirement isn't on my horizon for another 10 years. In the meantime, I am honing my quilting/sewing skills and blogging. Perhaps one or both of those things can provide me extra $$ in the future.

I retired 16 years ago at the age of 61 by following my heart and settling down with a man again (something I swore I'd never do). It involved a change of country, learning a new language and making a Mediterranean garden out of a wilderness. My partner had been retired for 7 years and, being of a creative bent, had many interests to occupy him. We shared the creation of a garden and at the back of my mind was the need "to be" and not "to do". As my ability "to do" is waining, I am enthusiastically embracing being. I am re-reading old books by Ram Dass, Irvin Yalom, and Alan Watts and pondering. I sit in our haven of a garden looking at the wildlife, listening to the rustle of the leaves I still love music and reading but don't feel the need of a sense of purpose. As Janet says, life is good.

I hope this doesn't come across as smug or complacent, as I don't feel that way.

I too was "age-discriminated" out of the workforce at about age 56. I kept looking for work for a few years before finally admitting to myself that, yep, it had to be age discrimination. Obviously that denied me the 10 or more years of highest earning that I'd counted on (just as it saved my ex-employer from having to pay me those 10 years).

I floundered badly for a few years, married, moved to another job market (no luck there), divorced, moved back. Then it finally dawned on me that with no job or spouse with job, I was finally free to move to Colorado, something I'd wanted to do all my life. Even better, my son's work had moved him to Denver a few years before.

So here I am, close to the mountains and my son and two grandkids in a tiny little house that I was able to buy when housing was in a major slump. Prices and rents here now are sky high, so I moved at just the right time.

Having the mountains, my son, and my grandkids all within easy reach -- couldn't get much better than that. The budget is tight, but I manage. I enjoy my pets, my blog, and video gaming (which impresses the heck out of my grandson and his friends, and surprises/shocks most adults).

All in all, life is good.

Retirement? I like to call it "my turn to play!"

Yes, there were setbacks, but some good fortune as well, so when I retired (good grief, was it 20 years ago!) I was ready. I could spend full time on my photography, on travel, reading, some community service, and of course, my friends.

In essence it has been a continuation of my life before retirement, without the bother of that 8:00am to 4:30pm stint at the office.

I fully recognize my extreme good fortune in both pretty good health and in interests that are within my price range, so to speak.

There's a ginormous industry devoted to terrorizing working people and then selling them something to address the terror (the basic advertising one-two punch) ... I refer to the sector of the financial circus that calls itself "Financial Planning" and it's mainly about telling you that you are not possibly smart or stable enough to manage your own money, and that you need to turn it over to some august entity who will kindly manage it for you for just a pittance for their trouble (ha!).

People often come to me and say "I need a trust." If I had any brains, I'd say "Great, let's begin!" Instead, being an idiot, I say "Why do you think you need a trust?" and nine times out of ten they don't really know -- it's the brother-in-law effect ("My brother in law got one and said we should too.")

To those people -- and to everyone else -- I like to recommend two books:

Ralph Warner (founder of Nolo Press): "Get a Life: You don't need a million to retire well."

and

Harold Pollack and Helaine Olen's "The Index Card: Why personal finance doesn't have to be complicated."

I think anyone feeling the night terrors about retirement would read these, they would feel lots better. And if young people just beginning their careers would read these, they would be able to resist the blandishments of the financial terrorists who frighten you into giving them money with the carefully-hedged-not-quite-promise of better results than you could obtain on your own.

Such an important topic for anyone near retirement. As you stated, these are hard questions we each must answer for ourselves. My journey began with the basics: Finances, housing, heath care. I personally didn't want to focus on what I would do. I just wanted "to be" for awhile. The best advice I received was from my mother who told me, "you don't need as much money in retirement as they say you need". She was right.

I had a few stops and starts in the first couple years of retirement, but eventually I forged a new contented life. And I found a new talent, drawing, along the way.

Like the others, life is good. Love the blog.

I developed wanderlust when a child and have never gotten over it.

I was forced into early retirement due to a hearing loss and struggled to survive until I was able to start drawing Social Security. Planning? Ha! I had not planned on anything that happened to me, but I made it.

Social Security finally provided me with a stable and secure income. I know, I know - that is not lavish retirement income, but it was a huge relief to me. With frugal budgeting I followed my childhood dream and traveled. I wanted to see the world and pored over travel books by the hour planning my first trip.

I was unable to find a traveling companion, but that did not deter me. I made a major trip every other year. In between I planned for the next trip and that kept me busy studying all I could learn about the countries I planned to visit.

I do not regret it for one minute. I have photographs to remind me of the wondrous places I saw and just a picture can carry me back to that tour and the excitement I felt to be fulfilling my dream. I suppose I am poorer in retirement funds, but I am richer in having lived my dream.


What gives me pleasure? Simply looking at my wife of 58 years. Hosting our weekly family
dinner. Doing the dishes. Playing volleyball. Sitting in my chair and thinking.
What do I most care about? My wife. My family. Our home (of 53 years)
Can I use my career experience in new ways now? Seldom.
What's been missing from my life? Tension. Which I rarely miss
What have I always dreamed about doing? Traveling the world. Ain't gonna happen. Darn!
What gives me a sense of purpose? Newfound need to 'stick my neck out', trying new
things, inserting my ideas into situations, businesses where I am at some risk.
What and who are most important to me? My sense of independence. And my family
What does an ideal day look like? Things to do. The good health to do them in. Time to
reflect. Talking to friends. Volleyball. Joy. So far our health holds good, - - but is very
slowly declining. Less work time between rest times. Still, retirement is soooo good!

Back when I was working in a really good job, I used to chuckle at those personal finance articles that breathlessly advised readers to think long and hard about when they "planned" to retire.

Even in the mid-90s, I knew no one is "planning" at age 53 or 56 to clean out their desk with an hour's notice and a month left on their health insurance, which seems to be a common American "retirement" experience these days.

It's only "retirement," as many have observed, because there won't be any more good jobs, and sometimes, no jobs at all. The notion that secure, well-paid middle-class people were comfortably seated at their executive desks idly doodling on calendars to "plan" a retirement was even then a notion from a past so gone it's painful even to recall.

My scorn over this was a good thing, because it inspired me to save like mad, and it worked out (luck plays a part, too, but you might as well control what you can). People laughed over the modest car I drove and the tiny condo we lived in. Today we'd be "minimalists," and nobody would be laughing.

My comments would mostly echo several already made here. Retirement sooner than expected, due to different reasons for my husband and myself. We have adapted, with less income than we had hoped, but now and then find some way to supplement it. I have a project beginning in a coupe of days that will help again for a few weeks at least. maybe longer.

We are one of the first generations to have as many opportunities as we do in retirement, enjoying generally better health, continuing education classes created for us, trips designed with our needs and interests in mind, more health and wellness and living arrangement options than a generation ago. Overall, we would seem to have a much better shot at a good life in retirement than the generations on either side of us. If nothing else, the gift of reading time I received when my years of 50+ hours a week of work ended has been priceless.

Wonderful post! Over a year ago, I ran into a woman I'd known tangentially for years. She asked what I was doing in retirement and I blurted out "I'm done with doing." She is a friend now, and she reads this blog.

The biggest confusion friends talk about regarding retirement is the What Will I Do with My Time worry. Not long after retirement, they are firmly in the Done with Doing camp.

What do I love about retirement so far? Going to bed when tired and waking up when I've slept out. No schedule to answer to. No one else's needs drive my day. The major thing I make a habit of is keeping my body strong and flexible. Since everything else cascades out of the body, I do what I can to influence it toward health.

I also call my father a couple of times weekly, because he is so glad to hear from me now. Some people really tenderize with age and he is one such. Nice to have a close relationship this late in life.

I know how lucky I am, as circumstances could change in a heartbeat were my husband to need caretaking. But for now the main thing is that I eat, sleep, read, walk, watch, socialize or spend time alone, according to my own urges for the first time in my life. I don't even have a cleaning schedule anymore - I just clean when something is dirty enough to bother me.

This sounds so indulgent! I'm not volunteering - my hands make it hard to do many things. I just don't want to answer to anyone and even volunteers do that. Maybe after another year or so this will not seem problematic.

Actually, I pretty much asked myself the questions you posed except that I took a step-down job for three years also. After 15 years of total retirement, my days at full of pleasant activities such as minimal gardening, reading a lot, knitting and exercise, mainly yoga. We never had much money and didn't have huge retirement funds, but have enough to continue the modest life we've lived. My husband seems to need a job, but has enjoyed taking various jobs to expand his life and have more "pocket money" than ever before. I enjoy reading late and sleeping late! I'm also available for my youngest grandchild, born after my retirement and living nearby.

I worked until I was 6 days short of 78 (my spouse worked to age 76). I liked my work and still miss it. My nonprofit fell on hard times and I was "involuntarily retired"/laid off with 2-1/2 weeks' notice after almost 40 years of service. I think I was in shock for the first 6-9 months. I thought about initiating a job search but then "Get Real!" took over. I already had a volunteer gig, which I've continued.

It's taken a couple of years to adjust. Life without a paycheck is different, for sure, but with Social Security (thank goodness for S/S!), a small annuity, modest investments and our RMDs, my spouse and I can meet our needs. We can't afford many of our "wants" but those have become fewer as we age, so it's a wash.

As far as "being" v. "doing", I'm not there yet. I've been useful to some degree or another my entire life, and I still want to be in some capacity. What I hadn't counted on--and probably should have--was that I would develop physical issues that cause discomfort (actually, pain) and some limitations in what I can do. Although my husband and I are both "basically" in good health for our age, I miss waking up feeling good and looking forward to what I will accomplish. That said, I enjoy reading, volunteering for a cat rescue/rehoming organization and our own 3 cats.

I'm not complaining. Although I've tossed the rose colored glasses, life is still O.K.--it is what it is.

i have 28 more days until I retire...first month gonna spend it out of stay at the beach with my grandkids. Second month will be spent in another state with my mother and sister...after that...i have no idea. I had knee replacement and can walk good again so taking it a day at a time...see what it out there...I'm ready to start a new chapter in my life and looking forward to it!

My husband and I have always participated in company savings (and hopefully matching) plans, so we've been squirreling money away. A few years ago we found a reasonable financial planner willing to work with our modest funds. (Thanks for your input, John Gear, in this comments section, esp. the titles of books to read.) We felt better using his help, so it's worth it for us. One of the primary things he drilled into us was that, during our working lives, we were working our way up, like up the side of a giant pyramid, toward money and success. But now, we had to recognize that we were heading on the way down, and things we had always done needed to be different! Still getting our heads around that, but it put retirement into perspective.

While my husband still works, I am retired. I was in panic mode for the first nine months or so, since I had no set schedule. Now I am as busy as ever, finding a new interest in life. I decided to try training my dog, and went on to compete in both conformation and performance. Then went on to certify four different dogs as therapy dogs. I volunteer with them at our local hospital, elementary school, and hospice. This can be up to four days a week. I still train my dogs, and help my friend, who is a breeder, with her work (livelihood) as well. I am always learning something.

Financially, I clip coupons and do all the cooking and cleaning to save money to splurge on little local trips. I traveled widely on business, and am now happy to stay in the beautiful USA. We downsized two years ago from a home of nearly 4000 square feet, three outbuildings, and acreage, to one that is about 1200 square feet. We feel a lot lighter and costs are down. We still marvel at people who buy and live in the oversize McMansions and drive the fancy cars, all while having children in school. Still can't fathom where they're working. Interesting to note: our financial planner has told us that we save more than anyone he has ever seen. Should we start spending like others we see? Nah.

Retirement can be as much of a challenge as other phases of life - and like them, it isn't always as rosy as it's cracked up to be. I'm lucky, healthy and reasonably well off so I find it's my own attitude to the new way of life that is the area of the greatest challenge. But that's where the fun begins - a new challenge with many more to come. The trick is to turn them into as much fun as I possibly can. I'm working hard on that.

We spend our lives doing what we're told to do - by parents, by teachers, by bosses. It's so WONDERFUL to do what you feel like doing. I wonder if jobs might not become passe in a century or two. We'll spend our time here developing ourselves, not "doing what we're told to do."

I worked and saved money because I was always afraid of becoming a bag lady.
So--money --check. At least for now anyway. We all know that can change --so, I still have fears of being a bag lady.

I always wanted to try living in a different culture and my daughter was living in Argentina and I thought --what the hey-- and here I am. I am busy learning a new language and going to the gym three times a week. This gives me structure, which I found I really need, as I have found I am not so very self motivated. So, my life revolves around these activities and I feel good about learning something, taking care of my body and being in the background for my daughter-- which I really think she likes.

My language skills impress no one ---but I don't really care.
As I am not gifted in this area, I am not worried--- as I would have been when younger. What I thought would take 6 months --I have changed to 10 years-- I just keep plugging along. I can get by alone and function --- amazing--

I am thankful for good health and will have to address life again if (haha--not if, but when) I have issues. But until then, it is kind of fun and scary to be out on a limb.

I retired exactly a week ago (thankfully by choice, and with a defined benefit pension and Medicare). I am looking forward to more "being" and less "doing," although given the current state of affairs, I plan to be "doing" more to help create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world, in roles that don't earn income. I also plan to grow my organic vegetable garden again this year but with slightly better weed control, and read more (including reading this blog on a more timely basis! I also like the book by Pollack and Olen, The Index Card.

I took early retirement 6 years ago at the age of 56. I am now 62. I always thought I would work til age 66 or age 70. I am doing OK financially. I watch my pennies. I tithe. I travel. I can afford to give gifts and treat people to the occasional dinner. I have no debt.

I think the hardest part of early retirement has been creating a new life and making new friends. What I do today is not what I did when I first retired. Today, I take exercise classes 5 days a week, I take arts & crafts classes, I attend lectures and I do volunteer work. Six years ago, I did volunteer work and worked a minimum wage PT job for a year. Even the volunteer work has changed.

I am meeting new people and making new friends. This part was the hardest & took the longest.

There's a lot to process with early retirement : loss of job, loss of income, loss of identity, loss of socialization and loss of feeling like I was making a contribution and part of a greater effort. It takes time to process all of the feelings surrounding retirement. Not to mention the fear!

Great stuff, and thank you all. I'll be retiring in 41 weeks and 1 day (!), and my biggest concern (I'm single, no kids) is what I'll do with myself.

This is such an excellent post and I truly loved all the comments. I've worked since I was 10 years old, on farms and delivering papers. At 12, I had 23 lawns to mow with a beat up 19" lawnmower & hand shears. At 15, I was working at the grocery store after school & sports. In the summer, I worked 56 hours a week as child labor laws weren't in existence in the 60's and early 70's.

I then volunteered for the draft and Vietnam as my older brother had served 2 tours, Dad was in World War II, and Grandpa was in World War I. I got sent to South Korea and was responsible for typing up the book for evacuation of nuclear weapons. Long hours and always on call to write back channel messages for Generals. I was honorably discharged on a Thursday, applied for work at a meat packing plant Friday, and working Monday. 6 days a week, 10 hour days.

Then to college. I used the G.I. Bill and worked as a waiter on weekends. Everyone should do a service job where your income is dependent on tips. I found the nicest people gave lousy tips and the egotistical people who looked down their noses at you gave the best tips!

Every summer I sandblasted and painted bridges, the first one being a railroad bridge over the Missouri River. No safety gear back then and no respirators when painting. Rather it was vasoline on your face and a rag wrapped around your nose & mouth. Sunrise to sunset (14 hour days) with 1/2 hour for lunch, no breaks, no supper until returning to the motel at 10 at night. I did this for 3 summers while attending college and for 2 years after graduating so I could pay off all college loans. But I lived well while attending college!

Then, after tiring of living out of a suitcase, I went back to the meat industry, working on the cut floor. Got into management 8 months later which required taking a $2.50 an hour pay cut! I was in quality assurance. Got married and we purchased 3 homes in 2 years due to continual promotions. Now I was Director over QA, Research & Development, Sanitation, Chemistry Lab, and Microbiological Lab; the things I hated in high school! 3 new offices up front; Plant Manager, Plant Superintendent, and myself. I saw 5 Plant Managers and 5 Superintendents fired in 3 years. But I was nicknamed "the walking computer" in the early 90's as everyone came to me with problems and I would spit out the answer. Worked 5:45 am until 6 to 8 at night, having a 15 minute lunch at my desk, 6 to 7 days a week. Your management and not hourly. But I refused to let any of my 23 managerial employees work longer than 9 hours, always shooting for 8 hour days. Afterall, within the first year, I had doubled their workload and we became a "preventive QA" department rather than a "detection and tag QA". And they all the respect and credibility they all so sorely desired when I was transferred there.

The whole problem was that I became married to work. At home, every minute was spent with my stay at home wife, 2 sons, and our home. And then, one Friday after work, my in-laws were there. And I was served divorce papers. Although your allowed 24 hours to leave, they had my suitcase packed by the front door. We had hybrid life insurance on the boys and monthly savings bonds for them. But we lived paycheck to paycheck. And I had to start paying $1,784 a month child support and alimony leaving me just enough to rent a 1 bedroom apartment. Tough times as I didn't see it coming.

So the financial planning of retiring at age 55 seemed to be going out the window as I didn't get married until I was 31. Now 63. And things got worse as they did their "clean house" of firings that seemed to transpire every 3 years. They let my VP go who was replaced by the VP of Operations. He brought in an old friend to be my superior and I was basically doing his job as he was one who climbed up the corporate ladder by job jumping from company to company. The next 5 years were hell as I knew they were trying to fire me. But previously I had always "exceeded expectations" on my reviews. Now I only "meet expectations" and only got that because I documented everything.

Finally, in 2000, they thought they had me and I was summoned to the Corporate Office with the VP of Human Services in attendance. They kept trying to give me "below expectations" in every category. And I kept pulling out the paperwork to provide evidence that I not only met expectations but exceeded them. I remember seeing the VP of HR just shaking his head (he was a good guy). So they then wrote up next year's impossible to meet evaluation plan. But I was determined to make it no matter what.

Then in August that year, it hit me....physically feeling complete fatigue, panic attacks, general anxiety 24/7, etc. I remember asking the doctor how long this was going to last. He said "you may have this the rest of your life as you have developed a chemical imbalance within the brain and we don't fully understand how all these chemicals interact with one another". My heart dropped. Cut off a hand, an arm, a leg.......heck, take both my legs as I can't exist like this. We went through every medication on earth, which I would have just the opposite desired effect. All the while I continued working. I went on medical leave October 30.

The VP of HR came a month later, offering me a separation package. I said no, I want to be on the payroll for another 3 months (accumulate vacation days and another year in the pension plan). And I wanted my hands checked out as I had also been experiencing carpal tunnel from pulling loins. He agreed. Ended up having surgery on my hands/wrists, 2 weeks apart. The physical therapy worked up to 7 hours per day but I was determined to ensure I had my hands! Then I was offered $14,000 for the disability claim. I didn't want any money, just the use of my hands. But it was a requirement to protect the company....ok.

Here I am at the time; 50 years old, physically in great shape and my anxiety contolled by Xanax and coffee to keep the edge. Besides all the work experiences, veteran, college graduate, and having completed 25 to 30 short course certifications, I had tons of interviews. It would be at first the single phone interview; then the second intense conference call interview. And this would be followed by flying me out for the final interview. And I totally felt the "age discrimination" people have referred to as they apparently can't do the math to figure out my age from my resume. So at the end of the day I was over qualified. I applied for 963 jobs and had 28 in depth interviews in a 2 year span, all the while making my house payments on a newer home and child support. After 2 years, my emergency funds were gone. I had zero debt but my credit cards all had like $30,000 available credit limits individually. I was not going to be a deadbeat dad. That wasn't an option. My boys were everything. So I borrowed. I put the house on the market. It took a year to sell....at the price I paid for it.

Then I go see a lawyer due to debt. He says I have to file bankruptcy. Federal credit advisor says the same. But you don't understand; I was raised that bankruptcy was not an option. That every debt has my signature on it. That my signature equals personal integrity. And if I file, someone has to pay because nothing is free.

At the same time period I had filed for Social Security Disability as there is 1 1/2 years in there I don't even remember. They came to the house as I couldn't even go outside to mow the yard as I was terrified of people. And I had the most loving neighbors but I was in my own personal prison mentally. Naturally I was turned down and utilized the same lawyer team to file the appeal. Only because I rode the lawyer, did he do anything. When he went to court, he called me, and said I won. He was laughing as he said that was the easiest $4,500 he had ever made as the Judge said they (Social Security Disability reviewers) had come to my home both times rather than having me go to them. So they knew I was unable to leave.

So here I sit; in the garage of a friend whose pets I take care of during the day, maintain her extensive & huge garden, do all the cleaning, all the laundry, and all the maintenance on all appliances.

But I got my cards and debt paid off. And my 401K is now an IRA, which in 2008, I also lost 40% of it's value. But it's rebounded. I figure in 1 more year, at age 64, I'll buy my last home; #6. So I just want something surrounded my nature. It's not easy as my very best 3 male friends have passed. And my family was my coworkers. So my days are spent helping 4 elderly single neighbors, who without my assistance, would probably have to sell their homes and go into some type of assisted living.

Not what I planned but I do get much comfort helping others. I just miss sharing my memories with that special someone. I sincerely apologize for my ramblings.

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