Retirement: Navigating a few shoals

Ta-DA! The winner of the draw for "Annunciation" is Mary. (Hail, Mary!) Mary, please use my e-mail in the Welcome section in the right sidebar to send me your postal address. The publisher will send your copy at the end of the month. Thank you so much, all who entered; I was heartened by your generous support for this book.

I recently read an article titled something like "Seven Mistakes to Avoid in Retirement". The list was what you'd expect: failing to track your budget; overspending on adult kids and travel (tip: travel off-peak); failing to downsize one's home; not attending to one's estate and end of life wishes; and several financial errors related to pensions or tax. Check, check, sigh and check.

But the list was written by a financial planner, so it omitted some of the less-tangible mistakes, which I would not call "mistakes" so much as pitfalls. We can do them unconsciously and I have fallen into every one—and I didn't need to retire, either; some crept in as I passed 50 or 55.

So,  my expansion of his list is below, and most do not pertain solely to retirement.

1. Letting appearance slide, without noticing
The parched cuticles, shoes that could use a polish, glasses that need adjustment (either that, or my head's on crooked), a smudged tote bag that I'm carrying till I can find another I really like: the lack of attention to such details forms my Schlubby Senior persona. (Stay-at-home moms and home-based workers report the same tendency, if that's any comfort.)

Deja Pseu wrote a typically well-illustrated post about the importance of creating "a cohesive and and pleasing whole", titled "Dress up, everyday". That's easy for me when everything's in good nick, but it's psychologically harder to spend money having my backpack zipper replaced  than buying a new pair of cashmere wristwarmers. But I remind myself that the maintenance is important. And, at 67, I cannot wear "distressed" anything, it just looks like neglect.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and say, Come on, make an effort. I remember boxing my mother's effects after her death at 99;  among the last clothes she wore, I found a lipstick in a jacket pocket.

I realize how much work kept me pulled together, and how living without that scrutiny leads to unwitting inattention. Does it matter? I definitely feel more cheerful and energetic when groomed.

2. "I know what I like and I like what I know."
A 60-ish acquaintance said this recently, as she screwed up her nose drinking her first espresso when visiting us. (Does not live on Mars, just central Florida.) As we age, I notice that when we close off the world, we lose touch with life's nuance and richness. Another friend nailed just what I'd noticed when she called someone "incurious".

In an online age, there's no excuse for this narrowing. We can expose ourselves to new ideas, broader cultures, different perspectives, without leaving our homes.

On the other end of that continuum, I recently met a delightful reader who asked if I'd like to have coffee while she was in Montréal; she was en route to interviewing a jewelry designer, for a prospective newspaper article. She's dipping her toe into a new career, full of brio and slightly stunned that a chance encounter had yielded the interview. At the very least, she will have fun and rekindle skills she has not used for a time. She had pranced over the pitfall.

3. Getting weird about money
There will always be help that your kids, niece or neighbours can use, causes which you support, the bike or car that needs new brakes. But the price of a pedi when your feet feel like they've been stuccoed is not going to wreck your old-age security. Permit yourself. Then you can do some good and not be a martyr about it.

(Why don't they offer Pay It Forward at nail salons? Plenty of women coping with hard times could use an eyebrow shaping or manicure.)

A friend lost his sister. He immediately bought a new car, booked a huge trip to Asia, and contracted for a major reno to his home. His girlfriend realized his spending was a grief reaction, and gently initiated several talks about what was going on. Yes, he has the means, but she was worried about the frenzied approach. 

Between grim self-denial and a YOLO spree, there's ample, satisfying middle ground; the art is settling into that place while the insistent drumbeat of consumption threatens to drown out discernment.

As I've said in other posts, the financial picture for older women is often dire, especially for those on their own.  I hope each of us who cares draws inspiration from Gloria Steinem, who at 80 is still deeply engaged in her work for equality. (I recommend Jane Kramer's recent New Yorker profile of Steinem, "Road Warrior", published here.) Glory to Gloria, who changed my life when I idly picked up that copy of a new magazine.

4. Post-work perfectionism 
You would think, once we leave the workplace, we could drop the perfectionism that so often is fanned by the belief that "a woman must work harder and better". But if a woman has spent forty or more years making sure every aspect of her work was done to the highest standard (hers), the trait is hard to shed.

That tendency can transfer from work to many other aspects of life: how your kids should rear their children, keep house, deal with their careers. How your town or country is governed, how other people behave in restaurants (I'm still piqued by cameras going off in my face, dammit), and how the dentist's office should really be run.

Hangover perfectionism is a major contributor to carping, and nothing truncates new friendships and tests old ones like an aura of permanent dissatisfaction.

Another post explored the difference between the image and reality thus far, almost five years into retirement. Though some plans slid off the cracker, plenty has happened: I moved cities, worked on a political campaign, edited a book, made new friends, helped several small businesses grow, earned a stack of French class certificates, and reduced my blood pressure dramatically. I've become a both a broader and more discerning reader (even if I don't remember the content so readily).

The financial planner is right, a woman must mind her financial affairs, retired or not. And at the same time, other aspects of life demand late-life attention—not just mistakes to avoid, but opportunities to seize.

I'll be intrigued to hear your additions!


Juhli said…
What a wonderful and thought provoking post. I would add that neglecting our physical health/energy/stamina is another pitfall. It is so easy to sit down and watch TV, read, knit, etc. when you don't have to get out the door to go to work. Now that we have more time it is time to prioritize moving our bodies as much as possible.
une femme said…
Wonderful post, Duchesse, and thank you for the mention! I too am wary about the narrowing of life and viewpoint after retirement. That's why I'm hoping to further my education once I have the time and mental "buffer space" to do so. French, photography and literature classes (all the things that were "electives" and didn't count toward a degree back in college) are at the top of my list.
LauraH said…
Great post. I was so surprised to read that you fell into a bit of the schlubby senior persona. Finding your blog and reading all the back posts a couple of years ago has made a huge difference in the way I dress and think about my appearance. I really feel better dressed, more comfortable and more myself than when I was working. Having a colour analysis was a great help as well.

My pitfalls...hmmmm. I hope I'm not narrowing down. When I pass by opportunities to explore new areas it's usually because I've already got a lot on the go, but will try to be more alert to this one.

Money weirdness happens to so many. I think it ties into the narrowing down, the less involved you are, the less engaged in the world, the more you lose contact with what things actually cost. I saw this play out with my parents and the parents of friends. Since I seem to be spending quite nicely these days, this is not one of my pitfalls :-) However, the other side of the failing-to-manage-your-money coin (hah) is over-managing and I think this is where I land. I do spend a fair amount of time on spreadsheets, tracking and recording $...maybe too much? I'll think about this.

TB Determined said…
Love this post! I am in the midst of retiring from one 20+ year career and going off to start something completely different. Sometimes it is scary but the status quo was slowly crushing me. So here's to change at any age! Love your blog.
materfamilias said…
A great post! I'm hurrying this morning (retiring is so very busy! I'd been warned this is so, and it's surprisingly true), but have this bookmarked to come back and think about more.
Murphy said…
Good reminders all. I agree with Juhli above that another pitfall is failing to stay physically active. I have seen my 82 year old mother sink into physical inactivity and incuriousity (if that's a word). It has made her depressed, cranky, and hard to be around. I desperately want to take a more positive path, and you are right - it's never too soon to start, even if I'm not retired yet.
Madame Là-bas said…
A great post, Duchesse! Right now, I am in search of a new project as I "front-loaded" a bit in the earlier days of travel and I am at home for a longer period this year. The need for accomplishment is still present. My mother is getting cranky and suspicious of new ways. I have been looking for some "meaningful" volunteer work so that I can use my abilities to help in the community.
My Mother who is 88 is becoming more inflexible and stubborn with each passing day! She has become miserly with her money.
She has no need to be so concerned as she has a balance portfolio and secure investments. I on the other hand do not have the same sense of financial pension is modest and I cannot afford to do all the things that I would like to do. Spa treatments and travel are two items that must be rationed. I love being retired!
As I am active and involved outside the home so I do get "dressed up" on a regular basis. I feel much better about myself when I make the might just be a pretty scarf or some jewelry that i add to my outfit that makes the difference.

You have penned a fine post this morning...there is a lot to ponder. I will come back later and read what everyone else has written.
Thank you!
Duchesse said…
Juhli: Absolutely! And as we age there's eve more need to retain muscular strength and balance... women often exercise for aerorbic benefits but balance work (which I find no fun) is as important.

unefemme: I always wonder (to myself) aobut persons who say to me, "I don't know what I'd do with my time if I retired"... there are at least 500 books I still need to read.

LauraH: Well, sure- I'm so •not• a fashionista! I think what ou call overmanaging is in fact a good thing- so many wman (and men) really don;t know on what they spend.

TB Determined: Wow! I would love to hear more as you proceed, would you perhaps be willing to contribute a guest post?

materfamilias: Ha! Surprisingly so.

Murphy: There is the lack of activity that is chosen, and then there's the lack that is caused by very real physical limitations. So while we can move as and how we wish, it is essential to do so.

Mme: That's so kind, and I hope where you live has a volunteers' bureau, or other agencies that will help you to contribute.

Duchesse said…
hostess: It's not a rational worry, but it's real to widows of your mother's era, close to memories of the Depression if not wiped out in those years. When my mother was in her 90s she would make me drive across a city to save 30 cents on broccoli, it was nuts.
Your good humour will be tested but will also carry you through, with her.
Kristien62 said…
#2 reminded me of the birthday card I just gave to my sister-in-law. It shows a group of 60-something ladies sitting in a sauna. The caption reads, "I can't believe we broke into the men's sauna. What do we do if someone comes? TAKE OFF OUR TOWELS." The birthday sentiment inside read something like, "You are never too old to do something new and exciting!" I'll drink to that!
Duchesse said…
Kristien62: Great card! I was once busted from a YWCA for going into woman-only sauna naked (with a towel to sit on.) Imagine!
Leslie Milligan said…
Very well timed post, as usual. I am guilty of letting the grooming slip after I moved from full-time employment (dresses, well coiffed hair, high heels) to part-time consulting. I looked disapprovingly at my blue jeans, grey turtleneck and pony tailed hair as I read your blog this morning. I live in the Pacific Northwest and this is common attire, but that is a lousy excuse. One recent addition that has helped with grooming - a 10X magnifying mirror. How long have those hairs been on my chin, I'll never know, but they are gone now! I'll deal with the other aging violations tomorrow.
Leslie, I agree with most of what you said except the high heels, which are, after all, a form of torture. And overly "coiffed" hair is a style sin among far too many North American women. Yes, the mirror is essential.
Sue said…
I think that there should be room for a bit of silliness, naughtiness, rebellion - call it what you line with the wonderful quote from Une femme d'un certain age: "A little bit of bad taste is like a splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste..." let's not be too sensible and prudent.
Susan said…
Thank you for putting these thoughts into words ... very timely in my case, as I have been retired for 6 years and the pitfalls you have described so well look quite familiar. For me, there was a huge sense of euphoria at the beginning of retirement - all that time, all that freedom! - and I was very happy and busy getting to the things on my 'Some day when I'm retired I'm going to....list.' However, I have been feeling 'stale' lately, and recognize in myself what you have described in symptom #4 - not so pleasant for me or those around me. Very good to have that put into words to mull over.

Volunteering, travel, taking literature classes purely for interest, and, recently, helping to look after my young granddaughter are things that have added richness to my life. I have been trying to refocus on two guiding principles that I acted on when I retired and have let drift: first, try to do something healthy, something fun, and something useful every day; second, if there's a chance to do something new, or something that scares you - take it!
Duchesse, I keep thinking of that other big change coming soon in the form of first grandchild!

Darla said…
All interesting points. I've been retired for a few years. I have a "fashion" question I hope you or someone will post about some day. What do you wear daily when most of your day is spent at home? I cook a lot, clean a little, putter with art. All messy activities that can actually ruin clothes. I like to be comfortable but look decent enough to go to the post office or library without changing my clothes. BTW, I've tried wearing aprons but that doesn't work real well and feels frumpy.

Duchesse said…
Leslie: Between the 10x mirror and the full-length mirror, we should be covered ;)

Sue: I would distinguish between "naughtiness" and "bad taste". And I much prefer chili pepper to paprika!

Susan: During the honeymoon phase many retirees either a) become couch potatoed, basking in longed-for leisure, or b) invest in expensive gear (from a fancy bike to a garage full of tools) that end up not being fully used. Sometimes what we think we want is not what appeals a year or two in.

lagatta: This post is about "shoals" and "pitfalls so that event did not make it on the list.
Duchesse said…
Darla: Whether retired or not, if you are doing messy activities you are not going to look appealing going out those clothes. Change your clothes for the public eye (or for yourself when you have finished your project. It takes two minutes.

If you are cooking and don't like aprons, do as the pros do: buy a chef's jacket. It is only on TV that chefs appear in sharp clothes- that's an imaginary world.

Artists dress like workmen when they are making art; they have "painting clothes" (usually old jeans or shorts and tees) from which they change when they have finished for the day. Exception: Gerhard Richter, whom I saw painting (in the documentary) in a Prada suit!

Even cleaning ladies come to their clients' homes with their work clothes in shopping bag and change again when they leave. If they can do it, so can you!

LPC said…
I find myself both opening up my world, in terms of now having time to think about things I brushed by when I worked, and narrowing it, in terms of where I go and what I do every day. My husband still works - for me retirement is therefore rather like a Zen retreat, full of opportunities for anxiety, sloth, and profound meditation, all in one. As for the clothes, ah well, I truly find that absent the social context of work, or meetings with friends, or dinners with my husband, I just don't care. I mean, I don't want to shock or depress anyone, and I have a certain aesthetic it pains me to disrupt, but I can keep within my parameters by choosing my sneakers well, or wearing a Basquiat tee from UNIQLO. I brush my hair;).
Araminta said…
Retirement - check; end of responsibility for 100 year old relative - check; selling large old house - check; moving for two years to London and all it has to offer- check. All wonderful changes. Having more space in the mind for anxiety about the potentially imperfect lives of my grown-up children - not so good. I have to make a huge effort to detach myself from this and let them live their own lives and experience their own mistakes. I can be there to lend an ear and help pick up the pieces if things were to go wrong. Anxiety about others is not productive and it very draining of one's energy and enjoyment of life. Something to be avoided if possible.
Marla said…
You've hit on some issues that speak directly to me and I'm printing it out for future kicks in the butt! Great post, and I'm going to go buy that bag now...
LPC said…
I've been thinking about what I wrote and I realize it needs refinement. When I say I "just don't care," I mean I just don't care in our suburban errand environment. When we stay up in San Francisco I like to make more of an effort to finish off my outfits. It feels better, more "in context."

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