Health: The Wildcard in Retirement


July 22, 2016 by Jean

Recently I found myself marveling at what a good summer this has been. Maine has been having sparkling summer weather (although a bit more rain wouldn’t make me unhappy); I’ve been filling my days with an enjoyable mix of work on my garden, reading and writing, and relaxation; I’m excited by my horticulture courses; I’ve finally found a good mix of volunteer opportunities where I feel I am making a meaningful contribution; I’ve been enjoying a social life that includes both old friends and new. And I’ve been feeling good physically.

This last is probably critical to my good summer. Both last summer and the one before that, I experienced pain radiating down my left leg from disc problems in my lumbar spine. The pain wasn’t severe, but it was an almost constant annoyance, it kept me from doing many things that I wanted to do, and it eventually sent me into physical therapy each of those summers. The first year’s physical therapy was not successful in bringing any significant pain relief; but last summer, I found my way to an outstanding physical therapist and began the process of dealing with my back issues by re-learning how to sit, how to stand, how to bend, and how to walk. The result is that I am walking (2-4 miles) just about every day and doing as much as 12 hours per week heavy work in my garden, all without pain.

I don’t take my current good health for granted. Yes, there are things we can do to try to safeguard our health; but, as much as our culture denies it, aging is a natural and inevitable process, and sooner or later, we will all experience health issues. Some problems occur as we age because parts of our bodies start wearing out from use (like the joints in my fingers, my spinal discs, or the thinning of that pesky fatty pad on the bottom of the foot that causes plantar fasciitis). There are also other health problems that are more likely to occur with age (e.g., bone loss, dementia, and cardiovascular disease). The more years we live, the more chances we have to experience randomly occurring health problems (like many cancers).

Health is the wildcard in retirement. Good health enhances the experience, but those who are dealt a poor health hand have to work harder at getting the most out of retirement. And health can turn on a dime. My widowed mother was living happily and independently at home into her late eighties, doing her own cooking and shopping, and taking care of most of her needs with a little help from family when one day, while she was working at her computer, her leg suddenly began to jerk uncontrollably. She was unable to stop it or even to move from her chair and had to call an ambulance. This turned out to be the first symptom of a brain tumor. She never lived independently again as, during the months that followed, she became progressively paralyzed and also lost the ability to write, to read, and eventually to speak. Although much less dramatic than my mother’s experience, I’ve watched one of my friends have her very active life disrupted in recent months by severe foot pain. Two other friends (both non-smokers) have experienced lung cancers caused by random cell mutations.

Right now, I’m enjoying the good health cards I’ve been dealt and trying to make the most of them. I do what I can to stay healthy, but I know that this really isn’t much in my control. I feel some urgency to get my big front garden landscaping project completed while my health still allows me to do this work, but I also know that I have to pace myself in order to preserve that health.

We may think we know what bad card we will eventually turn up, but we don’t. My mother had a history of cardiovascular disease (including both a stroke and a heart attack) and always assumed that was what would finally get her – but it wasn’t. I was totally blindsided by cancer in my fifties while my doctor and I both had our eyes on the ball of my family history of heart disease. More than two years into retirement, I doubt I’ll ever run out of things I want to do and to learn; but the health wildcard will affect my ability to do them. I can only hope that when I turn over the bad health card, I will be able to play the hand I’m dealt with courage and grace.

14 thoughts on “Health: The Wildcard in Retirement

  1. Brenda says:

    I’m happy to hear that your back is doing better. Health is a huge wild card in retirement. We deliberately took on the most physical tasks on our property as soon as we got here in hopes that we will be able to complete them while we are strong enough and healthy enough to do such work. I found that my health improved in retirement, due to the huge reduction in stress. But I am always aware that could change in a minute. I, too, hope that I will have the courage and grace to deal with whatever health issues come along.

    • Jean says:

      Brenda, Your strategy of doing the heavy work while you are still able is pretty much the same strategy I’m using with my garden. I just keep plugging away at it year by year and hope to get all the heavy landscaping work done while I am still able.

  2. Carole says:

    Oh, I know exactly what you mean. So far my health is good, but I never take it for granted. My husband is experiencing some age related health changes that have progressed over the last few years. I don’t know how fast it will progress, but we will make the most of what life has to offer us, while we can.

    So glad you are doing well this year with your health. It sounds like your summer is going just the way it should, with a good balance of elements to provide happiness and contentment in your life.

    We all strive to be able to live independently for as long as we can, as long as our health allows. Really the only thing we can control about this wildcard is to live as healthy a lifestyle as we can, and to minimize our risk of injury by not engaging in unsafe behaviors (like climbing tall ladders!).

    • Jean says:

      Carole, Thanks for the reminder about the ladders. 😉 Because I have lived alone for the past 40 years, I have gotten into the habit of doing two-person jobs alone, even when it is a little dangerous. This is a habit I’m trying to break. Knowing that they’re going to ask me about falls at my annual check-up does remind me to be more cautious.

  3. Jean R. says:

    I so admire how you keep such a good balance in your life, working to keep both your mind and body healthy and active. Reading your blog always reminds me that I need to spend more time finding that balance. I take my body for granted too often, relying on the good genes I got from my dad. But I forget that even he ate healthy and did exercises every day…and that’s the part that is hit and miss with me.

    Glad you are pain free this summer. Your hard work paid off.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I go through periods when I fall off the exercise wagon. The longer I go without walking every day, the harder it becomes to get back into it. Then one day, I finally force myself to get out and do it and it makes me feel good and I wonder why I haven’t been doing this more often! When I was working, I walked to work as a way of getting my exercise. Last year, I discovered that I was more likely to get out and walk if I allowed myself to do a shorter walk (2 miles instead of 3 or 4).

  4. Dr Sock says:

    Health truly is a big factor in retirement. Health changes also can be what prompts a decision to retire. In my case, last fall I suffered a broken bone in my foot that failed to heal. I was on crutches (non-weight bearing) for three months, and then weight bearing but still in a cast for another month. In the same time period, my work situation was extremely difficult and demanding, and I was working 11 and 12 hour days. I finally realized I needed to cut back my work hours so I could rest and my foot would heal. It also led me to reappraise my work situation, and make the decision to leave my administrative position. Although I have not retired yet, I am now seriously planning for retirement.


    • Jean says:

      Jude, I started thinking seriously about retirement the year I was diagnosed with cancer. Although I was too young too retire at that point (only 50), the life-threatening illness made me realize that I couldn’t assume there would be a ‘someday’ off in the distant future. The illness (as my doctor told me it would) helped me to rethink my priorities and to put more emphasis on taking care of myself.

  5. bernie says:

    Jean…I consider you my friend on the “other” coast. I’m in Seattle. I believe we retired the same time, we were both teachers, we love to garden, we are relishing retirement, and we walk every day. Summers in Seattle sound a lot like summers in Maine. However, our winters are probably quite different. In the past two years we haven’t had any snow and it never gets horribly cold. We have mountains an hour away and that’s fine with me

    Anyway, to your post. One of the reasons I retired (I mean it was time after 40 years) is that it got quite difficult to teach because I’m losing my hearing. I was born with excellent hearing but in the past eight or nine years it has gotten progressively worse. At 66 years old it is the only issue I have and I don’t see it as a health issue (more of a wiring problem). Health wise I couldn’t be better. I am vegan and eat no processed foods, at 5’6″ I’m the same weight I was at 21 (121 pounds), I work out 5 days a week with free weights in a gym, yoga, and stretching. I try to walk at least 5 miles a day (most days over 6 miles) and when the weather doesn’t comply, I’m on a treadmill. I sleep well, have low blood pressure, never been really ill, never have headaches, and have lots of energy. However, having hearing loss does impact my retirement and it was not what I thought it would be. I am limited in meeting with groups, I wear hearing aids and can have an effective conversation one on one and in a fairly quiet place. I can’t teach anymore, I can take classes with the help of a bluetooth device, but I can only understand the person speaking. People asking questions in the audience or room is beyond my capability to understand. I can’t listen to music because it’s just noise and having a PhD, and being intensely intellectually curious…well, I truly miss a lot and can only read or refer to captioning. I miss parts of conversations and accents are the worst!

    Now, that being said…I have decided to meet this challenge and while it may impact my retirement, it is not going to ruin it. Not working takes away enormous stress, being in the garden alone is normal because I’m not listening to anyone, I travel (just returned from Greek Islands) wearing a deaf sign and everyone was gracious and helpful.Going though customs/immigration was a breeze. I ask people to speak slowly so I can lipread and listen, and most people are awesome! Somedays it’s difficult but I have no choice. Attitude is everything. I’m thrilled that my hearing loss happened late in life not when I was raising my son or when I had to be employed. So I’m lucky. Anyway, great post Jean. Stay healthy and be fit!

    • Jean says:

      Bernie, This is what I love about blogging; you get to connect with people that you have a lot in common with but never would have encountered otherwise! I’m delighted to be your friend on the other coast. I have also felt some affinity between the states of Maine and Washington. Thirty years ago, after attending a June conference in Seattle, I took the bus up to Anacortes to catch a ferry out to the San Juan Islands and visit a friend in Friday Harbor. The boat trip out to the islands reminded me so much of traveling to some of Maine’s many coastal islands — except that we don’t have orcas in Maine! I think the similarities are strongest in summer, when our climates are pretty similar. Our winters here are much, much colder (overnight lows of -10F are not uncommon), snowier, and sunnier.
      One of my friends here retired a couple of years earlier than she originally planned because her hearing loss was making it more and more difficult to function in the classroom. She is one of the members of my retirees lunch group. We have occasionally talked about expanding the group, but have kept it at four, in part because she can manage a four-person conversation, but adding even one or two more would make it much more difficult.
      I agree that attitude is everything. We can’t control the cards we are dealt in life, but we can decide how to play the hand.

  6. Stacy Moore says:

    Oh, Jean, I am so glad the physical therapy has paid off and that you can do much more this year pain-free.

    Years ago a garden blogger (it may have been Holley in Texas?) wrote a post about gardening for aging. She was looking at her huge property and trying to plan new beds so that they could be converted to something lower-care if/when the need arose—mixed perennials to shrubs and that kind of thing. Her focus was a little different than yours on pre-emptive work; I suppose it’s the idea of planning/acting during health for your enjoyment when health falters that’s resonating.

    • Jean says:

      Stacy, I wonder if Holley might have been writing about Sydney Eddison’s book on this topic, Gardening for a Lifetime? I read part of the book and I’ve tried to incorporate some of her strategies into my planning (e.g., some shrub borders). But I also found myself resisting the message; it seems I’m just not ready to restrain myself yet.

  7. Diana Studer says:

    perhaps the lifetime garden comes in gentle stages.
    Too much like hard work to do That any more, must find different plants for There.

    I heave a sigh of relief when I consider what needs doing here, in a little suburban garden – compared to the big garden in the country, where even going flat out, still meant you needed to do that bit again, before you could even get to the next bit. Sigh.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, I’m not quite ready to give up the big garden projects yet, but I’m trying to include more shrubs and fewer perennials as I consider the future maintenance for my garden.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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