More Than Money

Sundar Mohan Rao

I WAS FASCINATED with retirement planning during the final decade of my career. I read many financial books and focused on saving diligently. Yet, after retiring several months ago following a 39-year career as a research and development engineer, I had a rude awakening.

You can plan all you want, but then comes an unexpected situation that derails everything. As boxer Mike Tyson famously said, “Everybody has plans until they get hit for the first time.”

In the brief time I’ve been retired, I’ve quickly learned that money—despite being the centerpiece of most retirement literature—isn’t the sole answer to my retirement needs. Instead, there are many ingredients required for happiness.

Several years ago, before retirement, my wife and I chose to sell our home, downsize and move to a 55-plus retirement community in Atlanta. Now, we’re in another such community in Tampa. From my perch, I’ve observed how seniors older than me, from their late 70s to early 90s, manage their lives. Some are just barely living, while others are thriving.

What makes some resilient and happy, while others struggle? This is not an easy question to answer. Everyone’s situation is different, so there’s no standard prescription that’ll work for everyone. Still, based on what I’ve observed over the past few years and on my own experience over the past few months, I believe these four pillars, presented in order of importance, are crucial ingredients for a happy retirement:

Health. Without health, retirement is a struggle. If one spouse has a health problem and the other functions as a caregiver, the entire retirement plan has to change.

I know of several families in our 55-plus community where the children have assumed the burden of caregiving, with knock-on effects on their own families and careers. I’ve also seen people living alone who struggle with poor health. In some cases, moving closer to children or to a continuing care facility is a great help.

I also see many seniors in their late 80s who are mentally sharp and physically fit, and there’s a great deal to be learned from them. Our health doesn’t have to be perfect, but a daily commitment to practicing healthy habits goes a long way toward slowing or even halting physical deterioration.

Wealth. There are well-known money moves that we should make during our working lives. Prudent saving and investing will get us to retirement’s door. It doesn’t end there, though. In retirement, there are many decisions needed to safeguard our money.

Some of the critical money moves in retirement include waiting to take Social Security to maximize benefits, whether to work part-time for pay, deciding between a pension or lump-sum payout, and whether to downsize and move to a lower-cost location to reduce expenses.

Then there’s the crucial matter of health insurance. It’s not just deciding between traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage. Buying long-term-care (LTC) insurance can be a great idea. I didn’t think about LTC insurance until a friend suggested 10 years ago that my wife and I buy it. It was expensive—and worth the cost.

Just two months after buying LTC insurance, my wife fell seriously ill. The insurance paid for her care, which was a big relief. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 70% of 65-year-olds will eventually need some form of LTC, yet many are unprepared.

If purchasing insurance is too expensive—and it has become prohibitively so—consider self-insuring by setting aside money for LTC. When estimating the amount to set aside, be sure to account for ever-increasing health care costs.

Social network. If we have our health and wealth but are often lonely, that won’t lead to a happy retirement. A National Institute of Aging study pointed out that social isolation and loneliness in elderly Americans can hurt our well-being, while other studies have found that social connections are important for maintaining good health.

In the 55-plus community where I lived in Atlanta, singles were happy to live in a community setting where there were many group activities. Those who had lots of friends and who were socially active were the happiest. Even if you’re living alone, it’s important to make every effort to meet regularly with friends, relatives and members of the community.

Purpose. After I retired, I noticed that few people asked about my career. The titles and responsibilities of the past no longer mattered. Stripped of my identity, I had to redefine who I was and what I was comfortable doing.

The fourth key to living well after retirement is having a purpose. It could be volunteering, teaching others, spending more time with family, hobbies, helping the community or anything that energizes you to jump out of bed each morning to accomplish something. This has been the hardest job for me.

I have no interest in watching TV, so I needed to find something to keep myself busy. I’ve found that helping undergraduates at a nearby university with their projects makes me feel useful. I’m also putting more effort into developing several hobbies, including digital painting.

The first few months and years of retirement are the time to explore multiple options and experiences. Eventually, I expect to focus on a few activities, as I learn what I enjoy the most.

Sundar Mohan Rao retired recently after a four-decade career as a research and development engineer. He lives in Tampa in a 55-plus community. His interests include investing, digital painting, reading, writing and gardening.

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