Preparing for Retirement: Keep active

By Barbara Pierce

“I’m in good health, compared to most people my age. I’m able to keep active,” said 73-year-old Terry Leonard of Ilion. “I know a lot of people who’ve retired, only to sit back in their rocking chairs in front of the TV. I’m glad I’m not one of them. I’m very fortunate.”

Leonard is well-known in the area. In 2014, he became mayor of Ilion after retiring as director of Catholic Charities of Herkimer County, where he worked for 22 years.

“I only wished I’d waited longer to retire from Catholic Charities. Work is good for older folks,” he added.

He’s absolutely right.

One of the most troubling findings about aging has to do with what happens to your health after you retire. According to the National Institutes of Health, older adults greatly benefit in many ways from engaging in productive activities after retirement, part-time work or volunteer work. Research shows that, of those who retire to their rocking chair, more than 50% experience a significant drop in their health and well-being.

The positive influence of remaining active as one ages “remains robust,” according to the NIH.gov online. That means the evidence to support these findings is strong and compelling.

Ninety five-year-old Elaine Cirocco of Port Charlotte, Florida, agrees. She has none of the frailties often associated with advanced age; her mind and body are strong.

“It’s because I worked until I was 90!” she claimed. “I owned a catering company in New Hampshire and kept working at it as long as I could. I was a widow and needed the money. But it did benefit me in so many ways.”

As scientists evaluated retirees in terms of what happened to their health after retirement, scientists increasingly focused on social factors. They found that whether one is socially engaged with others or is isolated from others is an important factor. When people retire, they often have fewer group activities and fewer friends. And this can have profound effects on health. Profoundly negative.

Remaining actively engaged with others is shown to be associated with less physical disability and better overall health. In addition, work is an effective way for older adults to prevent a decline in their cognitive abilities. Studies have shown that work that is complex has an especially positive impact, as building a higher level of cognitive reserve can help prevent or slow down the process of dementia and other brain damaging diseases.
For these reasons, many researchers suggest that those thinking of retiring take time to prepare not only financially but also psychologically and socially. Those parts play much larger role in retirement than finances. Parts like how to not be bored out of your head due to lack of challenges. How not to become depressed and deteriorate physically and mentally because of reduced activity, reduced social interaction and lack of a sense of purpose.

Plan what you’ll do with your time before you leave your job. When you’re working full time, there’s not usually time for hobbies or fun activities. Start thinking of what you might do.

“I get real antsy if I just sit around. I can’t do that,” Leonard agreed.The great challenge is figuring out how to recover some of what you’ve lost in retirement — daily interactions with colleagues and doing things you’re good at — and combine it with your newfound freedom.

Start by thinking about what you liked most about your job; situations where you felt you were doing well and were completely happy. How can you begin to duplicate this in retirement? Many retirees work as a consultant, a free-lancer, or are self-employed.

To find well-being in later life, give yourself time to think of new purposes in life. Your hobbies, interests and passions are all still there. Embrace them! Instead of commuting to an office, commute to your workbench or to a class at the local community college. Or join a sports club, religious organization, any kind of a group.

Find something that interests you and pursue it. Give yourself a reason to be eager to get out of bed in the morning. Whatever your interest, there’s probably a group of people with the same interest: historical societies, political groups, arts group and many more.

A significant pathway to a socially connected, happy and healthy retirement is volunteer work. As a volunteer for Meals on Wheels of Herkimer County, Leonard has found this.

“I deal with people; I interact with the people on my route,” Leonard said.

He works three hours a day, Monday through Friday.

To keep fit, to keep healthy physically and to keep your brain functioning optimally, it’s essential to keep active.

“I’m very fortunate. I’m able to be active,” is how Leonard summed it up.