Looking Ahead to Retirement: It's Not Just About the Money

September 3 is Labor Day, when we honor the contributions of our nation's workforce. If you're considering leaving that workforce to retire any time soon, here are some things to think about.

Senior woman looking ahead through sunglasses

Not so long ago, workers in the U.S. routinely retired at 65 and never looked back. Today, things are different. The decision to retire is not to be made lightly … or without a plan.

Americans today enter their retirement years for varied reasons. Sometimes they feel they have no choice. Maybe they have health problems that make it impossible to continue in their job. Some face age discrimination and are laid off. Many retirees quit their paid work earlier than they'd planned in order to provide full-time care for a disabled spouse or elderly parent. Others retire to follow their dreams of traveling, spending more time with family or pursuing creative endeavors.

The age of retirement also varies more these days. In April 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau noted that more people than ever are working past the traditional retirement age, well into their late 60s, 70s, and beyond.

Is retirement healthy for us, or not? Recent studies seem to contradict each other! Some experts report that people who retire earlier enjoy better health and a longer life. They get more sleep, have lower stress and anxiety, and have more time to take care of their health. In contrast, other studies found that the health and well-being of retirees can decline as they have less money and less opportunity for mental stimulation and spending time with others.

What makes the difference? The reason we retire and what we do with our retirement years both figure in. To raise the odds of having a healthy and happy retirement, it's important to make a plan … or rather, several plans:

A financial plan. When we think of retirement planning, this is what most of us think of first. Long before your target retirement date (or your best guess as to what that would be), talk to a financial planner to learn how much money you need to save in order to create a comfortable retirement nest egg. Fewer employers today offer traditional pensions, so saving is more complicated! And don't forget to factor in medical expenses. As you approach retirement, create a realistic budget. Be sure you're Social Security savvy. Sure, you could start collecting at 62, but if you do, you'll make less per month than if you retired at your full age, or better yet, at age 70. (To help with the decision, the Social Security Administration offers a handy benefits calculator.)

A plan to stay socially connected. A recent study from Cornell University found that seniors who work tend to have a larger social network. Retirement can leave a big hole in our lives. Take the time to reconnect with old friends, and find opportunities to make new ones. Look for volunteer opportunities. If you're a caregiver, join a caregiver support group. Consider moving to a senior living community. Start a Facebook account if you haven't already — studies show online socialization can provide a good mood boost. And if you are married or partnered, consider that your relationship might change at this time. A counselor can help the two of you navigate this adjustment period.

A plan to stay physically active. "What have you been doing since you retired, Chuck?" "Oh, just puttering around the house." When we're employed, so often we get home at the end of the workday too tired to lace up our walking shoes. We might vow to get more exercise once we've left our job, but inertia can leave us spending a lot of time on the couch! Make exercise a priority. Take up golf like you planned to. Look into classes at the local senior center. Join a hiking club. Check out the local gym — some have reduced-rate senior classes midday when gyms aren't as busy and there's less competition for the equipment. And did you know that some Medicare Advantage plans cover fitness activities? No matter what your fitness level or health challenges, there's an exercise regimen that’s right for you.

A plan to keep your brain exercised, too. Mental stimulation supports brain health and delays cognitive loss. A study from Concordia University in Montreal asked the question, "How does one stay mentally fit after the 40-hour workweek is traded for the gold watch?" Study author Larry Baer pointed out that retirement can be a risk factor for mental decline, because when we're working, we have greater motivation (translate: our boss and our paycheck) to take part in mentally stimulating activities. Baer says it's important to seek out activities that boost brain power post-retirement. Take a class, join a book club, download some computer games, write a memoir, take a painting class or learn a new language — it's never too late. Even seniors who are living with memory loss can benefit tremendously from brain exercise.

How about an encore career?

Demographers tell us the line between working and retirement is blurred these days. A majority of today's retirees, or those about to retire, say they'll continue doing some kind of paid work. Maybe they will cut back their hours at their long-time job. Maybe they will take a part-time, low-stress job to pick up a few dollars and get out of the house. More baby boomers are moving to "encore careers" — starting a business, consulting, even lifeguarding or working at a national park. Some have even become professional caregivers for other older adults, perhaps after gaining expertise from caring for their own loved one. Partial retirement can be a good way to remain physically, socially and mentally active — and, of course, to pick up a few dollars while you're at it!

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.