Most people who retire in their 60s can expect to live another 20 or even 30 years. It's a whole new life when you're no longer chained to a job and likely have no more responsibilities for children.
On the one hand, it's an opportunity for new adventures, new relationships and perhaps a new place to live. But if you're not prepared for this new stage of life without a job, but perhaps with more physical constraints, then retirement can seem like a heavy burden rather than a walk in the park.
Whether you're planning for retirement, or have already cut the company cord, here are the four main issues you need to address before you can relax comfortably into retirement.
1. Money. It may be the root of all evil, but it's also the foundation of a happy retirement. Do you think you can live on Social Security alone? Of course, it's possible. According to the Social Security Administration, 23 percent of elderly married couples and 46 percent of unmarried people rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income. However, you will likely be living at or below the poverty line. The average monthly benefit for a retired worker at the end of 2013 was $1,294, which is just about the same amount as the poverty line for a couple with no dependents.
Money issues generally do not resolve themselves if you ignore them. You may be averse to opening your credit card bill or talking to an investment adviser. But to survive in retirement you need to assess where you stand financially, and then put yourself on a plan. It's useful to begin by paying off credit card debt. And once your kids are finally through college it's time to start doing some serious saving for retirement.
2. Health. We know that everyone dies in the end. But it's how you get there that counts. Most people aspire to living a healthy and pain-free life into their 90s, and then going quickly, preferably in their sleep. No one can guarantee you a healthy old age. But there are many things we can do in our 50s and 60s to improve our chances of living a healthy and pain-free life during our 70s and 80s.
Everyone knows we're supposed to eat our vegetables and go easy on fat and sugar. Walking is probably the best exercise for those of us with back problems, or who've survived knee or hip surgery. But the crucial thing is to get some kind of exercise. The most effective way to do that is not to force yourself to do something just because it's good for you, but instead find a physical activity that you enjoy, so you will keep doing it.
3. Companionship. In his book "The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest", Dan Buettner analyzed the variables that explain why people in certain societies live a long time. He 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 the Ikaria lifestyle is how people prize their social lives. They rarely dine alone, for example, but make a point to break bread with family and friends. 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.
4. Purpose. Many older adults want to continue to be useful and make a difference in the world. 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 to your family, community or in developing your own skills or consciousness. So, whatever you do, give yourself a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
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.