Career Focus

Retiring with ease

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 08 February 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:S2-7078

There are a lot of people out there keen to sell you a pension, but a happy retirement isn't just about the money. David Wells, who runs retirement seminars for BMA Services, has some advice for those about to enter their third age

For those of us who were unsuccessful in constructing a portfolio career(1) - because they had yet to be invented - there are several aspects of retirement that are worth considering before the event. Let's start with those things we may be looking forward to leaving behind as we retire.

Overwork is an obvious one, but could it be that we approve of the Protestant work ethic, and like to feel a little indispensable? I spent 30 indispensable years in practice, but apart from one old lady who I'm sure died of a broken heart the practice continued to flourish after my early retirement.

As busy people there is great pressure to substitute quantity for quality. Many of us developed the five minute conversation in practice, to find it spilling over into our private lives. Since I started travelling by bike rather than open topped Herald I now have the opportunity to stop and talk, rather than just waving as I go by. There really is time, and I enjoy it.

All our lives have been blighted by those awful managers and bureaucrats - but is our main objection to them centred around our own enjoyment of organising other people's affairs? We long to leave behind all the pressures and stresses of work - but does it not also allow us to show how well we are able to cope under circumstances that would devastate lesser mortals?

Keeping abreast of developments in our own field can be a real drag - but having had to exercise our brains and memories for so many years now, will we be happy slipping into neutral? In my view the problem is the uncontrolled quantity of information; if we can regain some control over pace, quantity, and also subject matter all will be well. We need to continue to learn.

Doctors by their very nature serve their communities, but not many of us find time to be actively involved in the community itself. We now have the chance to actually join in if we wish, instead of being at the edge of things.

So if the bad things of work aren't quite so bad after all, let us look at some of the less obvious changes that can come with retirement. Perhaps the most obvious one is to point out that whatever else retirement brings, it is certainly a major and far reaching change, not only for us, but for those around us. It is a chance to take charge of our time in a way we have never been able to before. The illusion that we are in charge of ourselves and others in the team is strong, and may only disperse when we actually leave. But - and there is always a “but” - freedom to take charge also carries a responsibility with it:the responsibility of managing a diary. After seven years I am only just coming to grips with the difficulty of saying “No” (always with a polite smile) when asked to do something I can and would enjoy doing, but there is no available time. Another subtle change is that suddenly life becomes more flexible, so a “No” yesterday could become a “Yes” next month, or vice versa, with the decision in your hands, rather than going through the usual committees.

Up to now, our main sense of purpose has probably centred around our main occupation, but what now? Our work has generally centred around others, and our leisure has been more self centred. If life is to be one long holiday how long will we survive being self centred? Because it is a time of such fundamental changes, it is a good opportunity to go back to first principles and reassess our priorities, beliefs, and general philosophy of life as we enter this new chapter. It can be surprising how much these things may have altered without us really considering them in our planning. And what about the change in our spouse that we have not been truly aware of? It's good to talk - and listen.

When we are fully employed our friends are usually ones with specific interests or attributes that match our own, while in our work we have the advantage of meeting a wide range of people, with all the stimulation that this can bring, both pleasant and unpleasant. Will we miss this?

Won't it be wonderful to be free of all those petty irritations that always come when working in any team however good - but have we checked that our spouses are ready, willing, and able to take over all the various tasks done for us by that team, in addition to their own tasks of caring for us and our every whim?

Doctors, particularly male ones, are such good organisers - but will my organising skills be fully appreciated as I transform our kitchen? Ouch! Perhaps another time to talk.

Examining values

The whole business of retirement seems to be nothing but questions which we must start to address as soon as convenient, but the good news is that there are very few deadlines in coming up with answers or conclusions. As we start to consider what we may be wanting to do in this next chapter of our lives, just think for a moment of the small handful of people who have really influenced your life so far. Ask yourself if their influence came through action or more because of who they were. One of the people who deeply influenced me was a patient who left school at 14, then worked for five years in the local mill before leaving to bring up her family. She never returned to work again. She had always lived near the local primary school, and over many generations every child that had either an excitement or a problem in their lives would always call in and tell her, and go away feeling valued and encouraged. Even the local minister found he would go home feeling refreshed after a purely duty call there - and I have to admit, so did I. Her genuine love and interest for just about everyone was what did it, and even though she was housebound for at least ten years, she never lacked for company and friends. She always had a little talk in broad Wiltshire with God every night, saying among other things that she was quite ready to go if he wanted her. Maybe who we are is rather more important than what we have been doing all these years. Her priority was her relationship with God and her friends and family, which we could consider as we decide on a direction for ourselves.

Questions to be addressed

  • How much of my feeling of worth is invested in my work?

  • Has quantity overtaken quality? If so how would I like to readjust this?

  • How will I feel without a timetable?

  • What new intellectual stimuli and challenges will I need?

  • Does my community need me? Do I need them?

  • Will I welcome change? Should I?

  • As leisure becomes less of an escape, should my activities alter?

There are several good books concerning retirement, mostly centred on finance (see further reading). The BMA Services seminars are an enjoyable way of discussing and sharing ideas on retirement with colleagues, helping to put into proper context any personal advice we receive. There are innumerable hobbies and pursuits that are available, but what is certainly a great help is a new challenge. You may have one ready waiting in the wings, but if not, one will soon materialise if you keep ears and eyes open; I believe it is called networking. My challenge was moving from the personal GP consultation to speaking at and leading seminars, which was a big and testing change, but now I love it. Most of us will be ready as well for new involvements, and the new relationships that go with these. Another new and influential relationship that may come our way is grandchildren, or as in my former patient's case, that generation. We might even do better as grandparents than we did as parents.

Physical activity is another necessity and if we can build in a group element, such as a golf foursome, we can always lean on the resolve of the group when our personal resolve sags. Remember also that we all have a creative side to us, and we need to exercise this to maintain full health. There are many creative activities on offer if we don't already have some, or are seeking something new, and plenty of available information. A balanced portfolio would include two inside pursuits for inclement weather, two outside for fresh air and exercise, two solo for peace, and two in company for stimulation.

If you are considering travel be prepared for a change in attitude: you no longer need to escape from work, so the people and purpose of your journey may prove more important than the sights, sites, and seashore.

So consider yourself as body, mind, and spirit; take reasonably vigorous exercise in each area; and avoid the restriction of five year plans. Remember that we were made to communicate lovingly with each other and with our Creator but that (thankfully) we don't need to do it all today.

Recommended reading

Lindsay J, Ellis N. Making sense of pensions and retirement. Radcliffe Medical Press, Oxford:1996.

A guide from two BMA authors which covers all aspects of retirement, especially pensions and finance, but also including a little on health, the problems of moving house, leisure, and other activities.

Brown R.Good Retirement Guide Kogan Page, London: 1996.

An even more comprehensive guide (and more expensive) covering moving, staying put, hobbies, and starting a business. Annually updated with checklists and lists in abundance, the most encouraging discovery in its pages is the number of people and organisations that are anxious to help and advise on every subject or problem, most of them without an axe to grind.


Recommended reading

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