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Six Secrets for a Successful Retirement

The real secrets may surprise you (hint: only one is about money)



Retirement (n): removal or withdrawal from service, office, or business; withdrawal into privacy or seclusion.

Wrong! With apologies to Webster's Dictionary, this is no longer your father's (or mother's) retirement. Today's retirees, and those approaching retirement, differ from their parents in a number of important ways. Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are living longer, perhaps spending 30 or more years in retirement. As a group, they are healthier, more active physically and mentally, more affluent, more educated, and more likely to relocate after retiring. Although seemingly an oxymoron, most Boomers plan to continue working in retirement and view retirement as a process, rather than an end, with perhaps several forays into and out of the workforce

This truly is a "new" retirement. In fact, many believe the word "retirement" itself needs to be retired—the word no longer represents the porch-rocking, shuffle-board playing, early-bird dining, silver-haired stereotype of yore. So, how can you plan for a successful, happy transition into the second half of your life? I'd like to offer six secrets:

Secret 1: Have Strong Social Support
Who would have known Barbra Streisand foreshadowed the results of a scientific study when she sang her song "People"? But did you know that those lucky people also live longer? A study done in New Haven, Connecticut found that men and women who were socially active lived an average of two and a half years longer than those who were not. Other studies have found that social interactions have a significant effect in maintaining mental health, regardless of whether retirees live alone, live with someone other than their spouse, or are childless. Satisfaction in retirement is strongly correlated to the strength and number of your personal connections. It would seem that investing in building and maintaining friendships can reap far greater rewards than investing in stocks and bonds!

Secret 2: Have Something to Wake Up For
Intellectual stimulation, structure, a sense of purpose, feelings of pride and accomplishment—these are key ingredients to a happy retirement. Sure, golf, fishing, tennis, and beachcombing are great, but can you really do them 168 hours a week? Although the answer is "yes" for some, for most of us, there needs to be more.

According to AARP, about 70% of boomers plan to continue working. Though an economic necessity for many, for others, work provides the feelings of engagement and self-esteem we crave (and don't forget the built-in social aspects most jobs provide). When surveyed, the number one reason people give for retiring is "to do something else." But, if you are content with working (and your significant other, if there is one, is okay with it, too), and there is nothing else you'd really rather be doing, then by all means continue to work. If your present career doesn't provide you with the emotional and psychological plusses you need, or if you find yourself unable to work, or you're bored with your retirement lifestyle, here are some other options to consider so you'll be leaping out of bed every morning eager to start the day.

In addition to volunteering, a volunteer or service vacation is a way to help others while enjoying yourself. Tens of thousands of people the world over are involved in constructing homes, improving public health, helping set up small businesses, gathering data on global warming, or building trails in National Parks. Examples of organizations that offer volunteer vacations include Habitat for Humanity (www.habitat.org), the Earthwatch Institute (www.earthwatch.org), and the American Hiking Society (www.americanhiking.org). Some of the costs associated with these volunteer vacations may be tax deductible—check IRS guidelines, or consult your tax advisor.

Rather hit the books than a golf ball? Lifelong learning opportunities abound—in fact, the mature learner is the fastest-growing contingent on campus, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Many institutions offer classes for free or at reduced rates for seniors, allow you to audit courses (no tests or papers—yippee!), offer distance education courses (curl up in your comfy chair in front of a computer and go to it), have continuing or adult education classes, or offer member-driven courses through organizations such as the Lifelong Learning Institute. Contact your local community college or university for programs available to you. Give the Internet a try—you can take classes online through QuicKnowledge (www.quicknowledge.com), ThirdAge (www.thirdage.com), or SeniorNet (www.seniornet.com). The term "college senior" can have a whole new meaning!

Strengthen your spiritual life. For many people, this time of transition provides an opportunity to delve further into religion and/or reconnect with the things that are truly important—areas that may have been neglected while climbing the corporate ladder and/or raising a family. Opportunities abound for involvement—explore them!

Secret 3: Have a High Level of Activity (Physical and Mental)
This really isn't much of a secret at all. The physical act of exercise actually brings about a shift in mood. Even after something as simple as a 15-minute walk, people experience a more positive affect (feelings or emotions), and feel calmer and more relaxed. As researcher Paddy Ekkekakis noted in a study on exercise and mood, "Walking is inexpensive, familiar, and safe. That's why many have argued that the most effective piece of exercise equipment is a dog."

If you're not a natural exercise-lover, increase your chances of consistently exercising by doing activities you enjoy, doing them on a regular basis (first thing in the morning prevents excuses later in the day), and doing them with another person (the guilt factor of letting an exercise buddy down can be a powerful motivator). The three pillars of physical fitness are flexibility, strength-training, and cardiovascular work. To ensure you get the most out of your workouts and are using proper form, consider hiring a personal trainer for a few sessions. Call your local health club for some recommendations. Costs vary, but run about $50 an hour. Trainers can come to your home (some have mobile vans outfitted with equipment), to your health club, or you can go to their place of business.

In addition to the body, we also need to exercise the three-pound dynamo we call the brain. Comprising about 2 percent of our weight, but consuming close to 20 percent of our energy needs, this vital organ needs to be kept in the best shape possible. Specific suggestions: do crossword puzzles, brain-teasers, acrostics, play bridge or chess, read, listen to music, dance, learn an instrument or foreign language, travel, play board games, or do something to disturb your normal routine such as switching hands to brush your teeth or getting dressed with your eyes closed. These activities can rev up neglected nerve pathways.

"Use it or lose it" applies to both body and mind!

Secret 4: Have a Willingness to Renegotiate Roles
The first two years of retirement are difficult for many, as major changes in roles and togetherness result. If you have a spouse or a significant other, discussing—in advance—your goals, plans, and dreams in retirement may save some angst down the road. For example, do you plan to age in place or relocate? Plan to work part-time or start a new career? If moving, what characteristics are important: climate, proximity to children/friends, excellent medical facilities, beach/mountain/lake living, a small town or a large city with lots of amenities, downsizing to make travel possible? Talking about issues and attempting to resolve or work out differences now may ease the transition. Recognizing that it is good and healthy to have separate as well as shared interests is important as well. If one member of a couple has been the traditional homemaker, that person may want to retire, too, and share (i.e.get rid of!) some of the routine chores. Research shows that most couples are happy in retirement, but talk, talk, talk to help ensure you fall into this category!

Secret 5: Have a Strong Financial Plan
Yes, you knew money was going to have to enter into the retirement discussion at some point! However, some of the studies about money may surprise you—there is both good and bad news. Let's dispense with the bad news first: only about one-third of adults have saved for retirement, and half of retirees rely on Social Security as their primary source of income. The good news? Research points out that it's not the total net worth of a person that helps determine financial satisfaction in retirement, but the knowledge that their savings have occurred in a regular, disciplined way over a period of time.

Realize that for most of us there is no retirement number that is ever going to be "enough," but participating in a forced savings plan during your working years, such as a 401 (k) plan, is a great start toward building that nest egg. Also, consider consulting a fee-based certified financial planner or a certified public accountant (CPA) to help in your retirement planning. Just like you might hire a personal trainer to make sure you get off on the right foot with your exercise regimen, investing some money to put you on the path to fiscal freedom in retirement is a wise move.

Secret 6: Have a Good Attitude
Although there are unpleasant things that happen to us that are beyond our control, we can control the way we respond to them. Practice stopping distorted ways of thinking by replacing negative thoughts with more positive, realistic ones. A little story illustrates the point: Two shoe salesmen were sent to a faraway island to sell shoes. After the first day, both men sent back telegrams. One read: "This place is a disaster. No one wears shoes." The other telegram said: "This place is a gold mine. No one wears shoes."

If you're looking for a happy, successful retirement, put these six not-so-secret secrets into practice, and you'll be well on your way!

Jan Cullinane is the co-author (along with Cathy Fitzgerald) of the best-selling book, The New Retirement: The Ultimate Guide to the Rest of Your Life (Rodale). She has appeared on TV both nationally and locally, has conducted more than 60 radio, Internet, and television interviews, and has written or been interviewed for numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Jan has a B.S. and M.Ed. from the University of Maryland. Her website is TheNewRetirement.net.

 
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