Make sure future more important than past, even when you have more past than future

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Reflections from my Notebook

A couple years ago I had come up with a plan for me to eventually phase out of the business operation over several years after potential partners stepped forward. The plan provided succession as well as a gradual pathway to my retirement.

Although I was feeling pretty good about the idea, an older woman who owned a business nearby warned me at the time not to retire. Too many men quit work, she told me, and then they soon die.

I surmised from her dire warning that apparently they lose their purpose and have nothing to fill the void created by eliminating the workday routine. I assured her I had plenty of things I could do and sort of laughed it off, but she did get me thinking about what happens after a life of work, even though that now seems far away since the plan for succession quickly unraveled.

The story planted in my head, perhaps from marketing more than observations, is that retirement evolves into the “golden years” when retirees live a carefree life without the pressures of work or raising a family.

Yet, that isn’t the reality for many Americans, and it isn’t all due to the psychological adjustment of not going to work each day.

For one thing, senior citizens today haven’t transitioned well to the do-it-yourself retirement savings of 401k plans, which have replaced the company pensions of the generation before.

Many Americans living past the traditional retirement age are still working, not because they miss work or desire to work, but because they have to work to make ends meet. Still, they might be considered the lucky ones.

Four professors using data from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project produced a report called “Graying of U.S. Bankruptcy: Fallout from Life in a Risk Society” that showed the rate of which Americans 65 and older file for bankruptcy has tripled since 1991.

The reasons for bankruptcy vary, but the biggest factor was unmanageable medical expenses, which is key in many bankruptcies by people of all ages. A drop in income was a big factor as was helping others, such as co-signing a loan for children’s or grandchildren’s education expenses, for example. Also, the number of seniors carrying debt has nearly doubled since 1989.

It isn’t just financial problems that plague senior citizens.

A 2013 national survey on drug use and health found that among adults ages 50 to 64, the overall rate of illicit drug use increased from 2.7 percent in 2002 to 6.0 percent in 2013. Part of that may be due to baby boomers who have grown up in a culture of drug use and are now reaching or approaching retirement age. On the other hand, a Mayo Clinic survey of 100 elderly patients who abused prescription drugs, showed 35 began their dependency in their 60s or beyond.

Another report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that when seniors misuse a substance it is most likely to be alcohol. Approximately 5.5 million older adults have alcohol problems. Changes in the body make seniors more sensitive to alcohol, and it may take relatively few drinks to cause intoxication or feed an addiction.

Loneliness is another problem. The epidemic of loneliness is a global phenomenon — England even has a minster of loneliness now — that affects people of all ages, but particularly older people, including those who have lost their social network that came through work.

All these studies may indicate retirement is a minefield that should be dreaded. However, looking closely at all these studies and surveys, it is still just a small proportion of seniors running into problems even if the numbers are rising.

Psychological adjustment still appears to be the primary issue facing people retiring from a lifetime of work.

Soon-to-be retirees need to be aware that life doesn’t automatically change for the better once they walk away from the job to enter what they expect to be their golden years. Life goes on and, as in any stage of life, there are pitfalls and adjustments to be made. The important thing, though, is to keep the focus on the future to make the most out of the life that remains, even if it doesn’t include a career.

Dan Sullivan, an acclaimed author and speaker on self-improvement, has an interesting perspective on this, even if his message wasn’t intended for retirees. I had never heard of him before, but I ran across his thoughts when reading another newspaper.

He says growth is a fundamental human need at the root of everything that gives people a feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction, meaning and progress. He advocates people growing throughout their life, and that includes when the end is nearer than the beginning.

Adapting his theory, which includes a big question designed to help people make their future seem bigger than their past, to retirement is that retirees need to look ahead at what life can offer, not behind at what they are missing with the transformation from work. Too often elderly people become nostalgic about a past that is, of course, in the past, rather than look forward to a new chapter in life that can become just as vital.

“The moment your past becomes bigger than your future, you die,” said Sullivan.

That may seem melodramatic, but I know a longtime businesswoman who has seen enough real cases to validate that theory.