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What It’s Like To Be Retired

Elderblogger Mary Ann of Five Wells is featured in a new documentary titled 101 Ways to Retire – or Not!, produced by Sue Perlgut and Christopher Julian.

Now that I’ve screened the video, that “or Not” portion of the title appears to be the operative point of view. None of the eight “retired” people interviewed throughout the documentary, all living in the vicinity of Ithaca, New York, are taking it easy. One teaches languages. A couple raises orchids commercially. Others work as a school bus aide, a house cleaner and a caregiver. Mary Ann is a member of the Town Board.

And all that is in addition to volunteering, gardening, choir singing, taking dance and exercise classes, raising chickens, traveling and studying. These people’s lives and interests are as varied as any group of younger people’s.

It was amusing to find that most of them dislike the term “senior citizen” as much as I do, and they don’t think of themselves as retired in the traditional sense. Part of the reason for that is retirement from paid employment is not an option for most of them. The documentary alludes to problems of ill health and money among the interviewees, but skims past those details to focus on the upbeat.

However, at different moments, almost everyone speaks to the importance of money: “Social Security is not enough.” “Save your money.” “Save money out of every paycheck – even $5.00.” “Save.” “Save.” “Save.”

With the exception of one participant, they say they don’t have time for senior centers; they are too busy “still doing what I’ve always done” (although one admits, without apparent regret, to doing it a bit more slowly).

This is an important point. Just because we don’t continue to pursue our midlife careers full or even part time doesn’t mean our interests and passions – related to our career or our leisure endeavors – change. I worked in mainstream media all my life and I still track it, keep up with trends, read journalism reviews and apply the knowledge from my decades of employment to my current “career” of elderblogging. I cannot possibly be alone in this as this documentary makes clear.

In an interview conducted by email, producer Sue Perlgut said, “I do think that we need to find a new word for what it means to be ‘retired’. It’s just not a good word for what many people are doing.”

Sue is right. Like “senior citizen,” “retirement” conjures images of people in rocking chairs napping or watching television. But I wonder if that pejorative notion was ever so and if the people in this documentary are really “redefining” retirement, as the media repeatedly tells us baby boomers are doing.

My memories of old people I knew when I was growing up is that they were as busy as anyone else. One worked every day at her church. The grandmother who lived with a friend raised the family’s pre-school children after their mother died. An old man in the neighborhood worked as a gardener for many local homeowners. And my mother served on the board of directors of her former employer nearly until her death. I don’t remember old people sitting around doing nothing.

If “retired” people are more frequently starting new or part-time businesses these days than in the past, it is because there is more opportunity for it than there was 50 years ago. Particularly because of the internet, large numbers of businesses can be operated from home, and due to that and new kinds of service businesses, start-up costs are minimal these days.

We mis-remember, I suspect, what the old were doing when we were young and so-called “active retirement” is not as new as we are told.

I was surprised and it was fun toward the end of the documentary to hear Mary Ann quote Time Goes By with a shot of this blog.

This is a lively, thoughtful video that gives more than a picture of contemporary retirement; it does a great job of showing what elders are really like in their daily lives at home and in their various endeavors.

You can find out more at the website,

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, kenju wonders what might have happened during a Drama in a Strip Mall Parking Lot.]


I couldn't agree with you more about retirement lives of earlier generations being far more active than media would lead us to believe. Certainly my mother kept quite busy producing what became a saleable art form, volunteering at the local hospital, staying current with world news despite vision limitations, allocating social time with friends of all ages and making new ones.

I think advertisers defining retirement with their words and pictures designed to get us to want to buy whatever they were selling, has led to some of these false perceptions.

Those elders I know today are following the pattern. With longer more healthy lives they simply have time to do it longer and more.

Thank you! It looks like I might be retiring soon and I needed this! In my case, it's a result of no one wanting to hire this old lady full-time mostly but this gives me a bit of hope.

All terms which make us define ourselves in abbreviated ways are uncomfortable for me. I often find myself in circles of people where we are introducing ourselves. Most start with their work, go on to their marital and parental status,and then their "hobbies." These simple terms like wife, mother, retired, artist, quilter, etc. allow self and others to get a handle on us. That feels limiting. I am more of the sum of my parts.

So, I am starting to say "I am retired and not retired." That starts hinting at the mystery we all are. I also wonder how it feels to people who do not HAVE a husband or wife, who do not HAVE children (I hear people say apologetially "I don't have children" or "I only have one child."), who are anonymous workers, who really like to sit in their rocker on the front porch and just be!

Instead of saying we are retired lets try to find another term like, we are in our "second chance". Someone can surely come up with a better term that fits active retirees. Ronni, you are changing the words "senior citizen" to "elder" and it's catching on. Maybe we can have a contest to see who can come up with the best term.

Grandma Moses sure didn't sit in a rocking chair. I only know one man who took the term 'retired' literally and parked himself in front of the TV. Needless to say, he didn't live long.

In my blogpost today, I recalled the couple I met walking the Camino de Santiago, who started their 'retirement' by walking from Switzerland to the far West of Spain. I met many such people, who had embarked on a long, long walk as soon as they were able for the very first time in adult life to go away for more than a couple of weeks.

I was thinking about this today because my partner reported seeing an old friend the other day (the friend is 70 or so) and hearing her announce: "I'm retired and I love it."

Thing is, I can't imagine her "retired" except from her boring, grinding day job. She's a community activist and I can't imagine she's stopped struggling for better conditions for herself and other survivors of cancer. But she uses the "retired" language. Will have to ask her.

But I can't imagine myself EVER "retired" in the sense of stopping working on the stuff I care about. Sure, someday I won't be getting paychecks -- but to stop my activism would be to be dead. Maybe I'll take some vacations ... though even that does not turn off my activist mind.

On the cover of Marc Freedman's book Prime Time, there's a picture of a stop watch reaching 60. Since I just turned 60, Freedman's book cover reminded me how iconic that number is. But even though it's an ending, the clock keeps ticking to the next beginning. When I was 52 I got a Master's degree in counseling, and now with my blog and book about memoir writing, I feel as energized about my mission as I did when I was 18.

What I really want to do is not confuse many activities for value or vitality. Eight plus Betty Reid of CBreauxSpeaks talks about how wonderful it is to finally be content with being rather than constantly striving to become. Don Imus said he will keep working because he doesn't want to be like "an old lady sitting around in a rocking chair." Maybe his seemingly insulting stereotype comes from our ancestors, and some of us, finding growth and life in being: from our blog site, church pew, yoga sit, artist's studio, camera lens, dog walking, activit's action and rocking chair.

I believe elders 60 plus are making some progress in re-defining retirement; however, it will probably require a minor revolution by the older Baby Boomers to really get us going. We need a new paridigm shift from consumer or volunteer type emphasis to more productive type of activities. It seems like most elders are afraid to dream and realize their BIG dreams; instead of just accomplishing many of those familiar relatively small projects that usually get lost in society in general. Let's make a real significant impact and change the world forever when it comes to retirement. My idea is for many capable Elders to become Seniorpreneurs (60 Plus); to work on their OWN business ideas contributing to society in BOTH social and economic terms, and still have the energy to RUN to the Finish Line.

Joe Wasylyk
Google: seniorpreneur project

When I hear people talk about the need to save, save, save for retirement and I hear financial advisors telling people they need half a million in the bank to make retirement feasible, I wonder if it is because they believe they need to maintain, in retirement, the multi-bedroom, multi-bathroom houses and the two-car, huge-eco-footprint, consumer lifestyles they could afford while they were earning.
To my way of thinking, retirement is a wonderful opportunity to scale down and to follow Gandhi's principle of 'living simply, that all may simply live'.
If we present-day elders are to be the repositories of wisdom that tradition suggests we could be, then IMHO the most important bit of wisdom we could possibly impart, is the wisdom of opting out of the have-it-all, get-it-now mindset of contemporary Western culture and the wisdom of reducing our footprints so that there will be a habitable planet Earth left for our descendants to live on. At the rate we are going, the human race is self-destructing very fast and taking most of Creation with us.
We don't necessarily have to go round preaching about all this (though I confess I often do) because Leo di Caprio does it better and the young folk are more likely to listen to him than to us. But we can certainly live it and model it. We elders, with our (hopefully)reduced need to bolster immature egoes by showing off our toys, are in a position to demonstrate that living lightly and sustainably on the Earth is in fact the most joyful way to live as well as the most ecologically responsible.
We need to be doing things like clamoring for universal health care, eating local and seasonal food, keeping our money on our local economies and exploring new models of community that make it easy to live so frugally and simply that we feel secure and contented even with nothing but social security coming in. Let's face it, even the most meagre social security allowance is a helluva lot more than most people in the majority world have to live on.
(End of rant).

I am coming up for retirement and feeling very ambivalent. Today for instance when I went for my sandwhich at the (not specially nice) snack bar, there was something about the routine of being a worker and buying a sanwhich on the run that I could not imagine giving up. How sad is that?

I've been retired for about 2 and 1/2 years now from a long and demanding career, the last years of which I did not enjoy at all. The sense of liberation I felt when I "got out" was wonderful. Then reality hit.

Being "retired" - or should I say, adjusting to "retirement" from a career, is not always easy. You have to kind of find your own personal way... Whereas in the past perhaps much of your selfworth (or "status) was defined by your career, that part of you is suddenly gone (at least it was for me).

It took me about two years to finally find my way into happiness after retirement. At first, the old Protestant "work ethic" would kick in and I'd feel guilty for not working my tail off, as I had for so many years before. Then I found work I enjoyed and could do from home, at my own pace and when it suited me, and this helped alot. I also took up a long lost interest in photography in a serious way, and enjoy it so much. I love having time to read all the books I want. I love not being stuck in commuter traffic or crowds. Time goes by so fast, I'm always busy, and now I wonder, "How did I ever have time to work?"

Mine was a roller coaster ride retirement from teaching & I did not want to go back, even tho I loved my career. Struggled with what to do next & was agonizing over the thought that maybe this was it. The end. I'd never find my passion. Read a pile of motivational books, started a journal. No idling during this period. Painted, decorated my house, took French courses, got a small job mentoring teachers..still felt something missing. Applied to many newspaper jobs, never even got one reply, even though my cv is excellent. All minimum wage jobs. Poopy stand up all day jobs selling. Why was I bothering? Between bouts of "what will I do with the next 30 years?" I was gardening like a maniac. Hmmm. I decided to put a flyer out- gardening. I ended up with 25 customers, May to November & earned good $$. There it was, staring me in the face. I am a gardener and I LOVE IT. Anyone who is physically fit & loves gardening can do this job. I only work mornings and earn more than I would teaching. Everyone has more than one skill hiding in their brains. Find it and use it. No finish line. I'm 64 and I'm a gardener.

How about, if you like to read, read.. if not, don't.

How about, if you like to dance, dance..if not, don't.

How about, if you like to color your hair, color it...if not, don't.

How about, YOU decide what's best for YOU...if not, don't.

How about, if you don't want to or cannot afford to retire, don't.

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