The four horsemen of the apocalypse ride out of the Bible on white, red, black, and pale horses. The white horse symbolizes conquest, or victory. The other three represent war, famine, and death.
Without delving into the religious implications, one can see these are the four big issues for the end of time. There are also four big issues that face you at the end of your career, that need to be considered and conquered if you're going to ride on to enjoy retirement in paradise, rather than in a living hell.
Money. It may be the root of all evil, but it's also the foundation of a happy retirement. You can live on Social Security alone, but it's not easy or pleasant. Do you really want to spend your golden years scraping together rent money, turning down the heat to save on bills, and selling your car because, well, it's not so bad to take the bus?
Money issues generally do not resolve themselves if you ignore them. So no matter how averse you are to opening your credit card bill or talking to an investment adviser, to survive in retirement you need to assess where you stand financially. And then put yourself on a plan, whether you're starting out by paying off credit card debt, or whether your kids are finally through college and it's time to start some serious saving for retirement.
Health. In the end, we all ride the pale horse of death. But there are many ways to go, and most people agree the best way is to live a healthy and pain-free life well into our 90s, and then keel over with a sudden heart attack. No one can guarantee you a healthy old age. But there are many things you can do now to make your prospects more promising, from eating right and exercising, to taking appropriate measures to be safe on the streets and in your home.
Everyone knows we're supposed to eat our veggies and eschew fat and sugar. Walking is probably the best exercise for those of us with back problems, or who've survived knee or hip surgery. I can also recommend ballroom or country dancing as a gentle but somewhat aerobic activity. Recently I took up table tennis. Some people mock my new "sport." But I have fun and work up a sweat without the risk of tennis elbow. The point is not to try to do something just because it's good for you, but to participate in a physical activity you enjoy, so you will keep doing it.
Companionship. In a recent New York Times Magazine article, "The Island Where People Forget to Die," longevity expert Dan Buettner analyzed the variables that explain why people in certain societies live a long time. He's looked at Okinawa, Sardinia, and a Greek island called Ikaria, where men are four times more likely to live past age 90 than they are in the U.S.
He found a number of behaviors associated with a long life, including a diet low in sugar and saturated fats. But the most noteworthy aspect of their lifestyle is that they prize their social lives. They rarely dine alone, for example, but always make a meal into a social occasion with family and friends. Buettner surmises that being engaged in the community not only gives people a sense of connection and security, but the lack of privacy may act as a check against self-destructive behavior, including crime. Ikaria has a low crime rate not because of good policing, but because everyone knows everyone else's business, and it's hard to get away with anything.
Purpose. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the 1800s, "The purpose of life is not to be happy, it is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived." Those of us who have retired have already made whatever difference we're going to make in our professional lives. The challenge of retirement is to make a difference outside of work with your family, your community, or in developing your own skills or your own consciousness.
So, whatever you do, give yourself a reason to get out of bed in the morning, even if it's to follow the more modern self-fulfillment philosophy of the 21st century. As Marisha Pessl wrote in her 2007 book Special Topics in Calamity Physics: "We aren't on Earth to be happy, but to experience incredible things."
Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.