Retirement? It's like a career change

KASHKA TUNSTALL
Last updated 05:00 02/11/2013
Retirement
CHRIS HILLOCK/Fairfax NZ

Going gold: Hamilton couple Catherine and Barry Smith are part of a generating redefining the meaning of retirement.

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What would you do if you had 30 years left to live after you retired?

Would you hole up at home? Head to the beach - spouse in tow - for golden sands and seas together in your golden years?

Or would you rethink the retirement altogether? Give work a go for another couple of years, better managing your financial burdens and staying occupied?

These questions were hypothetical once upon a time.

But with life expectancy creeping up slowly each year, it's a reality we should all be taking a little more seriously.

Or at least that's what Catherine Smith thinks.

Thirteen years into her retirement, the active 72-year old seems like she knows what she's talking about, and she's willing to share some advice.

"We've got to get ourselves at least mentally and physically ready, as best we can," she says, caught on a rare moment at home.

"Retirement could be a third of your life. I look at my parents, they died at 94 and 92. That's a third of their life out of their careers. I could have that.

"If you've got 30 years of retirement, it's like it's a career change. That's the way I see it. A career change without payment, and your choice every step of the way."

Mrs Smith started working young.

At 23, schooling behind her, she embarked on a career as a veterinarian.

Looking after small animals, she felt valued. The people who frequented her clinic were like family. She loved her work.

But 37 years later, she left it all behind. No regrets, she says. It was time. She was 60, took up hobbies that had been sitting on the backburner. Tramping, painting, environmental and veterinary activism. The "retirement" lifestyle required her to keep busy.

Three years later, husband Barry followed suit.

A scientist at AgResearch in Ruakura, Mr Smith had been working a scaled back four-day week for two years, helping him extend the longevity of his professional life, he says.

A bit apprehensively, he dropped out of the paid workforce at 67.

He had spent 40 years allowing his career define him and it was hard to leave his workmates.

But he wanted to give print-making a try, and write a little more - things he'd never found the time to do.

"For a day or two, I felt a bit sad I was leaving a family - because it was a family - but it was only for a day or two," he says, grin in place.

"There was an easing-off slightly when I retired, but nature abhors a vacuum, and we found ways to fill the time up."

Between the two of them, they now volunteer for 10 organisations.

Mr Smith dabbles in poetry and printmaking, Mrs Smith paints. They're both heavily involved with environmental causes. Catching them together to chat for a moment proves difficult.

It's important for them to give back, they say.

It gives them a sense of value, a purpose, and a reason to stay active. Three things that keep them going.

And it's this type of full social schedule that has Professor Peggy Koopman-Boyden, Waikato University's resident social gerontologist, unhappy with the way retirement is talked about these days.

"Now, we have a lot more people who move from full-time work, to part-time, to part-time voluntary work, and then they have all their own interests," she says.

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"Would you call those people retired? They're actually incredibly busy people."

Prof Koopman-Boyden has been studying gerontology for 40 years, figuring that the study of older-population demographics would rove increasingly important. She was right.

The baby boomer generation is now slowly filtering through into their retirement years, she says.

The result is an ageing population, and frequent references to phrases such as "economic burden", "skill shortages" and "healthcare costs".

Last week, Accuro Health Insurance chief executive Geoff Annals was reported as saying society was failing older people by retiring them too early.

"Too many people die early because of lack of purpose or don't maintain their health and allow medical conditions to overtake them."

It's a sentiment that irks Prof Koopman-Boyden.

"The hypothesis that the age which you retire determines the length of life thereafter, well, I'm not sure about that," she says.

For her, there's a worrying lack of data.

Some occupations are tough physically or stressful mentally.

Those people affected by stressful jobs die earlier, she says.

"There are a lot of causes and factors. It could be the people who are the healthiest will live the longest and will work longer. So which comes first? Health or work?"

It's a circular riddle without a lot of statistics to shed light.

"What we do know," she says, "is the compulsory age of retirement is no longer the case.

"That has meant a lot of people can now work beyond the age of 65 and that has had huge implications."

The latest labour-force statistics showed nearly one in five in the 65-plus category were in employment.

That's an 8.8 per cent increase from the labour force survey carried out in 1986.

"We need older people to work," Prof Koopman-Boyden says.

"Our economy needs them. So how can we help them stay on? If they like their work and they do it well, why would you ask them to retire?"

She says the more pressing issue is quality of life in final years as longevity increases. Issues such as social isolation are a problem, she says.

"It's not much fun living to 95 if you're chair-bound, bed-bound, have Alzheimer's."

Research carried out at Brigham Young University in 2010 concluded that social isolation was as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

And what Age Concern Hamilton chief executive Gail Gilbert says she has seen in the past few years is beyond anecdotal.

There has been a noticeable lift in the services needed for older people living in socially isolated situations, she says.

"We have a supportive service, like a social work service, and it's growing year on year.

"We see a lot of social care and welfare issues and the referrals come more for people who are socially isolated, so we know for a fact it doesn't help you to live a good long healthy life . . . it increases health risks."

One common issue is that people who run away to the beach, the perceived golden glory of retirement, find themselves socially disconnected, she says.

They leave friends and family, and often have trouble creating a new social environment for themselves.

Health issues emerge and without an established support system around, life can be difficult.

Mrs Gilbert says she often sees this happening. After five years they chuck the coast in for home comforts.

It's about intellectual and social stimulation, and physical exercise, Mrs Gilbert says. It makes the difference.

Back in Enderley, Mr and Mrs Smith are enjoying a bit of R and R before Mr Smith dashes off to a weekend poetry convention in Hastings.

Mrs Smith has been out all morning, but the two are sitting down together, finding the time to catch up before getting on with their commitments.

"Any complaints, you have to remind yourself you don't have to do any of this, this is a free choice to take on as much as you like," Mrs Smith says.

Her husband sighs, sinking back into the comfort of a soft sofa chair.

Yeah, life's good, he says.

- Waikato Times

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