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Be Prepared

By Dan Gordon '85

Published Dec 14, 2018 8:00 AM

Today, retirement can last almost as long as a career, so it’s important to plan accordingly — physically, socially and financially.


Illustration by Julia Breckenreid.

Retirement once came at the end of life; now, for many of us, it’s merely the start of a major new chapter.

“There are people who are spending almost as long in retirement as in their careers,” says Sue Barnes, director of the UCLA Emeriti/Retirees Relations Center, which serves as the connecting link between UCLA and its retired faculty and staff and provides information regarding their transition into retirement. “It’s important to put thought and planning into that next phase.”

Unfortunately, Barnes says, people tend either to be unrealistic about retirement plans or to avoid the subject altogether, whether it’s because they’re consumed by work and family life or would rather not think about their older years. Financially, Barnes notes, as pensions shrink or disappear, young adults would be wise to consider the power of compound earnings and begin socking away money for retirement early. But not enough do. And many who closely monitor their finances still fail to realistically consider what they’ll do with themselves in retirement, when their days will be less structured.

“It’s common for people who are excited going into retirement to experience a honeymoon period for the first six months to a year, and then hit a wall,” Barnes says. “If they haven’t thought about what they want to do, they might start to feel as if there’s too much free time, and they’re surprised to not feel as fulfilled as they expected. So it’s important to have something to retire to, instead of just something to retire from.”

Or, as Barnes puts it when she offers her tips for retirement bliss: Don’t just retire, rewire. Here’s her advice:

Take It to the Bank
Barnes says if she could give only one piece of advice, it is to be proactive about saving. “If you don’t have adequate finances when you retire, you will struggle with everything else,” she observes. She recommends consulting a trusted financial planner early on to make sure you’re on track to have the financial resources you’ll need. “That’s different for everybody,” Barnes says. “Some people have a simple lifestyle and don’t require as much money, while others want to do a lot of traveling, which costs more.” As a general rule, she notes, financial advisers suggest that between any pension, Social Security and savings, you should be able to replace about 80 percent of your annual income in retirement.

Shape Up
Along with tending to your financial health, Barnes strongly advises maintaining a healthy diet and active lifestyle to increase the likelihood that you’ll stay physically robust for as long as possible. “We want not just a long lifespan, but a long health span, in which we remain mobile and can take part in all of the activities we want to do,” she says. Besides the obvious benefits, physical exercise is one of the few proven strategies for significantly reducing dementia risk.

Stretch Your Mind
Exercise your brain as well as your body, both to maintain your cognitive function and to stay intellectually challenged, particularly if stopping or reducing your workload has left a void. Barnes notes that learning to speak a new language or play a new musical instrument are two of the best mental exercises, since they stimulate parts of the brain that tend to get less use. But she encourages retirees to pursue any intellectual pursuits they enjoy.

Find Meaning
People need a reason to get up in the morning. But with no full-time job and the kids out of the house, retirement calls for something new. Barnes says to consider where your passions lie. What have you always wanted to learn? What interests have you set aside? For many, volunteering can provide a sense of purpose. In her center’s surveys, Barnes says, UCLA retirees tend to pursue their volunteer passions in three general categories: the environment, animals or other people. “The main thing is to do something that is important to you, that allows you to pursue something beyond yourself,” she says. And, of course, not everyone who “retires” ceases all work. Those who enjoyed their careers will often find ways to continue part time, whether for financial need or to stay connected and engaged.

Stay Social
There’s ample research to suggest that people with active social lives are healthier and happier than those who are socially isolated. “Socially connected people maintain better cognitive function, suffer fewer chronic conditions, experience less depression, are less likely to need long-term care, live longer and have longer health spans,” Barnes says. For many, professional colleagues constitute a key part of the social circle — but not necessarily a permanent one. “People always think they’re going to stay in touch with their coworkers after they retire, and then may be surprised when those relationships tend not to continue,” Barnes notes. “Unless you have something in common besides the work, it’s hard.” For those who are nearing retirement, she suggests assessing whether social networks outside work are sufficient, and cultivating new connections if they’re not.

Strengthen Family Ties
Impending retirement is also a good time to take stock of family relationships. “Social circles tend to shrink as we get older, whether from mobility limitations or because friends begin to pass away,” Barnes says. “At that point, people tend to rely more heavily on their family connections, and if those relationships are already strong, it is much easier.”

Expect the Unexpected
Life is full of surprises, and Barnes cautions that your best-laid retirement plans could veer off course. Some people take early or altered retirement because of unexpected health problems — their own or those of a loved one. Setting yourself up for the best-case scenario while also recognizing that things can change builds the resilience to weather life’s inevitable storms. “You have to be flexible and prepared to address issues you might not have anticipated,” Barnes says. Even if everything doesn’t go exactly according to the script, she adds, people who take the key steps toward planning for a blissful retirement are the most likely to lead healthy, happy and longer post-retirement lives.