Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rehearsing Retirement, Part 2

Guy Clark--"Desperados Waiting For A Train" (mp3)

But I am old
And you are young,
And I speak a barbarous tongue. -- Yeats

Retirement, that last phase of life, is something that no one really wants to think about in concrete ways. Retirement, glorious on the front end and difficult at the back, seems best pushed for later years, when you get closer to the time. But it doesn't just happen. You don't just work one day and quit the next. And how do you even plan how long to work?

You have three basic choices in the afterlife of retirement:

1. You settle into your present home, or at least your present city.
2. You move to a retirement community in a warmer place like Florida or Arizona.
3. You split your time between the two.

Any other option is a spin-off of these choices. Maybe you have more than two places to live. Lucky you. Maybe you plan to spend your time and money traveling all over the place. Luckier you. But what do you do on the average days of retirement?

1. The lures of staying at home, in a home you probably own, in your home city are perhaps obvious. This choice is practical, comfortable, viable. You know the city, you know the neighborhood. You have friends here. You have doctors and hospitals you know. Retired living is a continuation of the life you had been living, without the work.

My friend who has chosen this option has plenty of time to pursue his hobbies, but also seems to spend an inordinate amount of time working in his yard. I cannot tell whether he takes joy in that or not. I get to see him fairly often. Because I still work and he doesn't, we work more carefully to schedule our friendship, trying to keep Thursday night each week sacred.

He is able to maintain a greater number of friendships with more depth.

He also does a lot of volunteering; he is asked to a lot of volunteering. Note the difference. The causes he enjoys bring him deep satisfaction, and he regularly devotes both time and money. But it also needs to be said that people take advantage of him, especially during that first year after he quit working. People assume that because you are retired you automatically have plenty of free time which they can freely draw upon. It's kind of like you just won the lottery, but with time instead of money, and everyone was just a little of that time, not much, you will hardly even miss it. This situation is compounded if you stay in the city you worked in. And maybe it's what you want. You still feel vital. Maybe it's right that you are now asked to do for free what you were once paid to do.

2. Each morning, the old men gather outside the Panera at one of the tables with an umbrella that does little to block the early sun. It is a bull session, I can tell as I walk past. Every morning it is a bull session. Whether it carries over from day to day, I can't tell. But what is clear is that, at this coffee and danish outpost situated in a strip mall among the retirement communities of Venice, Florida, is that the same pecking orders of middle school or high school continue once again when a bunch of men of similar age and background gather to debrief on their life of leisure.

There are the same blustering blowhards, the same once-athletes with stories of what once was. There is the same worry, should you choose to join this community: will I fit in? The common denominators are age, of course, plus a geographical background in either the Northeast or the Midwest, and a similar socio-economic status. After all, the condominiums of Venice are moderately priced. You can spend as much as you want, but you can settle quite comfortably for not too much over $100,000.

And, for me, at least, as I ponder my eventual option, there is an existential question: what happens down here if you don't play golf?

The social life is as all-encompassing as you want it to be: poolside chatting, organized events with pot-luck food and music from "back in your day," golf outings, day trips, meals in homes or at restaurants with friends, commisserating with your pal while your wives are at the beauty parlor, Spring Break visits from children and grandchildren, book groups.

And life is simple. In a condo, you aren't burdened with either the maintenance of a yard or a large home. You have a only a few rooms; you are comfortable, but overladen with possessions. The kitchen is small, so meals are simple. The fish and produce are fresh. A meat or fish cooked on the community grill with a salad and some bread just about does it.

There are dark sides to this dream. Not all of the elderly, not by a longshot, in places like Florida live in condos in restricted retirement communities. Many of them have to continue working, and so you see an unusual number of elderly working in Panera, in the grocery stores. Though you may be at the laundromat because your condo is under construction, there are plenty who do their weekly laundry there. Also, even if you live in a condo or town home with all of the organized social life and amenities, you still must grapple with the fact that the social mix changes year to year. Some people never come back, aren't physically able to. Come in as a young retiree and you will be shocked at the community turnover during a 10-year period, after which you won't be a young retiree anymore.

3. Arguably, a blend of Option #1 and #2 seems ideal. But think about the financial situation you'd have to be in, not only to own two homes, but also to have that portion of your retirement tied up in extremely unliquid real estate. If one of the two dwellings were not passed on to you, you'd have to have quite a chunk of change.

And, maybe, at some point, going to two places each year becomes as much of a routine as going to one place.

If you think that I have figured out my own plans, you're wrong. It's something that I've grappled with more and more each year, as I head to Florida for a getaway at a free, mother-in-law-owned condo in a retirement community where I get closer and closer to fitting in quite naturally. Florida is a fun place to go--sea, sun, sand, fish, wonderful produce, casual living, a recurring newness with each visit. But I've never been there for longer than two weeks, and usually during the summer when the town is less crowded because most retirees return north for the summer.

Still, what I do know is this: whatever choices we make about retirement, we need to make them long before we retire, perhaps long before we are ready. The money and the dwellings have to be in place. Or at least the money for the dwellings. And, to some extent, we really can't change our minds year to year. Maybe the best plan is to have one place, as a base of operations, so that from there we can go wherever we want to, or wherever we can or can't afford.

Retirement seems like a dream to many, but nothing could be more dependent on practical considerations. That you don't really want to think about.


troutking said...

Especially when you throw in the fact that most grandparents probably like to be accessible to their grandkids--and who knows where they are going to live--it does seem hard to predict and plan 10,20,30 years out.

Anonymous said...

The adjustment that you have to face during the retirement phase of your life is a bit scary. Some people I know chose to live in 55 retirement communities because of the events and amenities that fits their lifestyle. They are also scared at first but they didn't regret it.