EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the June 2008 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.
You've been successful in your career, but as you near the end, you're facing 20 years or maybe even more of retirement. The opportunities are vast -- exciting, but sort of scary. You don't want to squander your remaining time. So how do you sort out all the choices? What will give you meaning in this next stage of life? And how do you put all the puzzle pieces in place?
I spent two and a half days in mid April with about 25 others who were pondering such questions and struggling for answers. We were all attending "Paths to Creative Retirement," a workshop at the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement, part of the University of North Carolina at Asheville. As a condition for covering the sessions, I was required to take part as a preretiree.
The participants, who paid $750 to attend, were in their fifties and sixties. A few were retired, but most were still working, and the group included a couple of doctors, a pastor and a business owner. There were seven couples, several married folks who came without spouses and a handful of singles. Some arrived with a good idea of what they wanted to do but needed to make sure they were on the right track. Others didn't have a clue.
Most were not worried about money. Instead, they traveled from as far away as Oregon and New Hampshire to explore the non-financial, emotional side of retirement. "We want people to identify their top priorities and the values that are most important to their lives," said Ronald Manheimer, the center's executive director. "Then we encourage them to be a little imaginative about what comes next and become less anxious about their new freedom."
Linda Laurich, 63, who recently retired as director of government affairs for a company in Madison, Wis., said the workshop "forced me to home in on the hard questions. What do I really value? What do I need as a person?" Although Laurich had already decided that she would relocate, the workshop motivated her to schedule a July trip to North Carolina to scout possible retirement sites.
The North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement (www.unca.edu/ncccr) is not the place to go if you want one-on-one advice. We worked in groups, engaging in various exercises that were designed to help us probe everything from the importance of friendships to our regrets about unfulfilled wishes.
The group dynamic was an important part of the process. Many participants took comfort that others were experiencing similar uncertainties. Often, the workshop seemed like a consciousness-raising session. Some participants picked up ideas from others. And by talking about their values and interests, many came to a better understanding of what they want. Some exercises were moderated by retirees who had moved to Asheville and imparted wisdom from their own retirement experiences.
"As I listened to other people discuss their fears and dreams, I found myself saying, 'I would like to spend a month in Tuscany,' " Pam Hatton, 64, a retired librarian from Geneseo, N.Y., told the group. "I didn't even know I wanted that." Pam attended with her husband, Art, 65, a retiree.
Packing for the Retirement Journey
The workshop began soon after breakfast on Friday. We broke into small groups to discuss our "fears and fantasies" about retirement. People who had been strangers a couple of hours earlier opened up without reservation. Nancy Sorenson, 63, a college dean from Moraga, Cal., spoke for many preretirees when she said: "I fear the loss of stimulation that comes with work. It gives me meaning and structure." DeAnne Rogers, 59, a retiree who formerly arranged photo shoots, worried that if she moved, "there would be a loss of friends, and even my plumber."
To break the ice, each group made a presentation. Representing one group, Barbara Guardenier, 53, a science teacher, pretended to be packing a bag for a trip to retirement. She tossed in pieces of paper that said "take up piano or pottery," "less responsibility for family" and "reconnect to community." She tossed away "being adrift," "loss" and "bored/sameness." She ended with, "I guess I'm packed." We all applauded.
The idea of tackling our fears so that we could develop the confidence to make imaginative yet rational decisions was a recurring theme. One exercise that was particularly illuminating was called Mansions of the Soul. Each room in the floor plan represented a different facet of life -- study for lifelong learning, living room for leisure, kitchen for "lifestyle maintenance" and so forth. We were asked to figure out how much time was spent in each room, and how much time we would prefer to spend.
We discussed the steps we could take to pursue activities we enjoy. For the preretirees, work was a big barrier, but Denise Snodgrass, the center's assistant director, noted that there is often choice involved. "If you want to know what somebody values, ask them how they spend their time," she said.
Gerry Parfitt, 57, who attended the session with her husband, Fran, 60, realized that she was working ten hours a day, as a hygienist for Fran's dental practice. "I wondered why I don't have time to do what I want to do. Now I know why," said Gerry, who lives in Grosse Point Farms, Mich. She noted that they spent too much time "decluttering" the house. "We need to spend more time on other things," she said. "We just bought new bikes. I want to do that."