When Retirement Loses Its Luster

Even though I’ve had a few niggling misgivings about retirement – having enough to get by, isolation, inactivity – the column of positives has outweighed those concerns. But they’re back and this time it’s my brother’s situation that has triggered unease.

If you were lucky enough to grow up with an older sibling that you always got along with and who always looked out for you, it’s disconcerting to see the tables turn in old age and brother and sisterknow that you love them enough to look after them but they won’t allow it. Not only will they not allow it, but they’ve made so many bad decisions along the way, that this is the result and the problems have multiplied. It’s hard not to replay some of those situations and constantly think, “What if…,” “If you’d only…,” or “Why can’t you…?”

My brother and I had a sort of bond against the world growing up. Our parents had a volatile relationship when my father was drinking (he eventually quit) and my brother, six years older, was quick to make sure I wasn’t being dragged into their fights – and by fights, I mean when my mother was yelling at my father (nothing physical). There was one incident shortly after he’d gone off to college when she was yelling at him and I’d slunk into my room and closed the door, turning up the television to avoid hearing them. Nevertheless, I heard my name being called. I stepped tentatively into the hallway to see them both standing in their bedroom doorway and my mother demanded of me, “Tell him. Tell him who loves you more.” What can you say to that? The moment they saw my face, the fight ended. I, however, relayed the incident to my brother and only found out years and years later that he called them and read them the riot act for putting me in the middle. He was my protector.

So yes, my brother and I have always had a bond. And now, it seems, when the tables have turned and he needs my help, I’m unable to pull my weight.

Over the years, his life took some hard turns and he lost sight of his dreams and goals and eventually gave up and retired. Not much of a money manager, when things would get rough, he’d abandon everything and just move. It never occurred to him that he was making his financial situation worse every time he did that and his money grew tighter and tighter. It’s finally reached the point where he has cancelled his Medicare because he needs the money for food. He hasn’t been able to afford any medical, dental or vision care and his health is beginning to deteriorate.

So here we are: me on the verge of retirement, hoping to spend some time taking him to dinner to make sure he eats decent meals and maybe catching a movie or two to get him out of his apartment. He, however, has decided he can’t even afford the low-rent Problems quoteapartment he’s in and is planning to abandon everything once again and head to Nicaragua so he can afford a decent apartment and food without having to ask for my assistance.

I help him out financially as often as I can and yet still feel guilty that I don’t just cash out my 401K and give him enough for the medical care I know he needs but is avoiding. I struggle with wanting to make his life easier but also protect my own. It’s made retirement scary for me. I want what’s best for both of us and I want him to live to be 100!

You’d think that, working in hospice, I’d be able to talk about death with him but I find that I can’t. The thought of losing him because he refuses to go to a doctor, makes me physically sick. More than anything, I want to be there to take care of him and I’m afraid part of his rationale for going to El Salvador is not only to save money but to keep me from watching his decline. I don’t know which is worse: being there to watch his decline or not being there and allowing him o cope by himself.

Neither choice is ideal but it’s made my view of the benefits of retirement slightly skewed because my future portends loss.

Freedom or Boredom

1464810432178This whole retirement thing is a bit tricky. I, like many before me, have spent decades talking about all the fun things I’ll do when I retire, not least of which is not having to set an alarm and then function on someone else’s time for the majority of my day. And the older I get, the more I’ve felt like life is passing me by while I’m stuck inside following someone else’s rules.  I didn’t notice it so much when I was younger because in my 20s, 30s, 40s and even some of my 50s, it still felt like I had hundreds of hours left to do what I wanted – to rebel and head out on my own, to forge a different life in another part of the world and explore, explore, explore.

I managed a little of that. When I was dancing, I got to see South Africa, Egypt, Finland, Sweden, Japan, Hong Kong, England, Italy, France, and Thailand. In a brief search for a retirement place, I checked out Panama and Costa Rica. But the funny thing is, the closer I get to retirement, the scarier it looks and the less adventurous I get.

Why is that? There are any number of reasons. I get less adventurous because moving two cats to a foreign country is problematic and then what if I hate it; I’ve developed chronic issues as I get older that require care, which makes me worry about leaving the country; I’d be an older, single female living amongst strangers and hoping they’re nice to me rather than viewing me as the odd one out and an easy target; and the hassle of traveling isn’t nearly as fun as it used to be. Things that never bothered me before, now do: Did I pack everything, did I leave early enough to get to the airport, will I find an overhead bin to put my carry-on in, will I hold up everyone behind me (none of whom offers to help) while I try to stuff my bag in that overhead bin, will I find my way through the airport to my connection in time, will the taxi driver screw me around on my way to the hotel, will this be the one hotel in the city with a bedbug problem … and on and on.

As for retirement being scarier the closer I get, I have a short list of what ifs:

  1. What if I get bored with the things I think will entertain me? I have a long list of things I’ve always wanted to tackle but what if I go through the list in the first few months and then none of them appeal to me any more?
  2. What if I get so used to sleeping late and with nowhere I have to go, resort to sitting around staring at the television or the computer screen, putting on weight and becoming more and more sedentary (which would, of course, mean that my chronic back problem will only get worse and my joints more creaky)?
  3. What if I decide I can’t live on my Social Security and I need to find a part-time job? At my age, very few places are likely to want to hire me and then I have to wonder if I should’ve retired in the first place.
  4. What if I get lonely? There’s an older gentleman who comes into the Starbucks where I go to write who, as I’ve heard him tell people, comes in every single day (like I’ll soon be doing) and sits very quietly until he can insinuate himself into someone’s conversation, where he then proceeds to spend far too much time talking to them. Will I end up like that – desperate for human conversation?
  5. What if I die? I’ve heard countless stories about people who were looking forward to retiring and then died within a few months of doing so. One of my co-workers and her husband both retired so they could travel the country. They were excited about this new path in their lives. They bought an RV and planned out their route around the United States. He died roughly two months after retiring. I don’t know why that happens so often (or at least often enough to have caught my attention) but I sure as hell don’t want to be one of the statistics.

So I suppose the basic issue is whether or not the dream will be all it’s cracked up to be. Looking at your dreams and realizing that they might be just that and nothing more, can put a serious dent in the rest of your days. It makes you pause and go through the retirement check list one more time to assure yourself that you’ve thought of everything. Then you just have to say: You’ll be fine. Repeat after me: You’ll be fine.

 

The Right Age to Die

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I figure this is probably me one day, fighting off death. I hope I have the energy for that.

So here’s the deal: I work in hospice. I’m not sure if those of us who spend years working with the dying just get used to death and think everyone else must feel the same way or if we jump to conclusions that are perhaps inaccurate.

One is when I hear a doctor talk about how he would counsel an elderly patient that his symptoms were not going to improve, he had no quality of life left and he’d had a nice, long life so perhaps it was time to take a stronger medication that would take care of his pain but would also make him groggy. He could then just die peacefully rather than stay wide awake and painful. I understand that from a medical point of view but I also think there’s a lot more going on with an individual than the physical. Being old and uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily mean he’s ready to die. There’s also the emotional and the spiritual to work into that equation and I often think they carry more weight than the physical concerns.

We spend our entire lives encouraging people to never give up; to fight, fight, fight; to believe in miracles; to try something new if the first thing doesn’t work; etc. At what point should that elderly person toss out everything he’s spent his life doing and quit? Why is it unreasonable to assume that someone might want to live a little longer, even if it’s a few days?

And then there’s the family. I’ve also heard things like, “She’s 90 years old. It’s time to let her go.” I can only assume these comments are a result of working with so many frail and suffering people for years and years. I understand that the goal is to make sure the patient is not in pain but what if that person prefers pain to death? And I don’t think family members pay any attention to the person’s age as an indicator of it being time to let them go. Loss is loss, regardless of the age, and it’s hard to let go. I’m pretty sure no one thinks, “Oh right. Ninety-one. Time to go Grandma!” Given a choice, I’ll bet they’d opt for 92 or, better yet, 110 if they could.

Or maybe the issue is me and no one else finds those comments bothersome at all. I haven’t arrived at a point where I think I’ll be okay when my time comes and so I can’t fathom being told it’s time to stop trying to live. I have tons of things I still want to see and do and hear and feel and I can’t imagine not being me any more, not having a consciousness. I realize that if I go to sleep and never wake up, I’ll never know the difference but making a conscious decision to do that is scary. What if I’ve given up and maybe I could’ve had one more conversation with my brother or laughed with a friend or spent a little more time coming to terms with the fact that the gig is up?

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that when you have a terminal disease, you’re going to die and maybe sooner than you’d like. I just don’t understand thinking the family or even the patient should be okay with that simply because it’s logical. The heart’s not always logical.