Shy and retiring

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 31 July 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:279
  1. Barbara M Southcott, retired consultant oncologist
  1. Chalmington, Dorset

    Talk to any colleagues in the medical profession of a certain age, and, sooner or later, the conversation will turn to retirement. Everyone has looked up the pension tables thoughtfully sent out by the NHS to clinicians who reach the half century mark, and we each privately estimate when the fallout from stress, political interference, arguments with the chief executive, lack of parking space, etc, will outweigh the financial pressures of school and university fees, mortgage repayments, expensive habits, etc, and take action accordingly.

    “Ah, retirement,” we all say to ourselves, with a vision of the Nirvana that is to come. Well, I crossed over a few months ago—all carefully planned and with no sudden rush to the finishing line:

    “How is retirement?” my colleagues ask when I see them on forays back into hospital to deal with the letters that still keep coming in.

    “It's… um, well, er. I don't know really.”

    “Don't know?” they echo. What can I mean? Has the break in routine made me go soft in the head?

    I try to dig myself out of this hole: “It's just, actually I still seem to be so busy.”

    “Of course you're busy,” they reply tartly. “Everyone says they are busy when they retire.”

    Yes, I know, but my busy things still seem to be the sort that I don't particularly want to do. When you retire you spend lots of time doing nice things, don't you? I am still doing the tricky bits—all the things I used to be able to get out of or put off because I was working full time. In any case, it takes time to feel retired: that little mental command nodule that we all have to push us through the days doesn't switch off easily, and if you still feel that somehow you ought to be working, it is almost as bad as the real thing.

    Then there is the next question that always follows: “What are you going to do with yourself now you're retired?”

    A reasonable question, and, of course, most of us have some plans or at least a “wish list,” but it is all rather vague at first so this answer, too, is unsatisfactory. “Well, I will travel a bit (not a clue where to), maybe have some, um, art lessons (could mean anything), settle down to some serious writing (so pretentious), and, er, that sort of thing.” My voice tails off.

    When it is your turn to be quizzed, dear reader, arm yourself with a respectable list beforehand, so that when the inevitable question pops up, you can shoot from the hip: “Learn classical Urdu, design and print my own wallpaper, make a continuous digital video recording of walking the Pilgrim's Way (anticlockwise), stand for parliament, breed Russian hamsters.” As you pause for breath, your questioner will be silenced also.

    There are, of course, inescapable downsides to retirement apart from the obvious one of a drop in income. If, like me, you relied on your secretary to unravel the intricacies of information technology, retirement will be accompanied by a substantial downsizing of communication power, which is inconvenient. Furthermore, the hospital email address, though it may continue for a while, will sooner or later reach a critical point and, like Cinderella's coach, disappear.

    Though you may previously have tried to avoid telling strangers you are a doctor, admitting to being retired is worse. Your companion will immediately look carefully at you—a look that says, “I am reassessing your age”—and the conversation is likely to become subtly dumbed down. Rather like the incautious patting of a dog considered too old to bite.

    There are also the patients who bullied you into giving them your mobile phone number. The “retirement bush telegraph” never reaches them so they continue to ring at awkward times to tell you that they have a problem. “But I have retired now,” you say.

    “Oh, sorry to get you out of bed, doc.”

    “No, retired—not working.”


    “No longer at the hospital.”

    Pause. “That's alright: I only wanted some advice over the phone—no need for you to go back to the hospital.”

    Well, I am not going to talk about retirement any more. If anyone asks, I shall say crisply, “I am life retrained,” and leave it at that. I feel better now I've got that off my chest. Perhaps I will go and have a cup of tea, a nice hot bath, and then maybe read for a little while. There's a good film on this evening. It finishes quite late, but then, I don't have to get up early in the morning.


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