No one teaches you how to retire and grow older. Everyone just sort of blunders their way into it and figures it out as they go along.
Virtually everyone discovers something about their new stage of life that surprises them, whether it involves finances, health or health care, keeping busy, figuring out where to live or aging with a smile on their face.
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So we asked some "experienced" retirees what they found most surprising about retirement and then consulted experts about topics that arose.
Is moving to a new locale a good idea?
"After my wife passed away in 2009, I wasn't comfortable living alone in our big house. My daughter invited me to come out and share a two-story townhome with her and her husband in Virginia. I lived there for two years, but I never got comfortable. I didn't know the area like I do here and I missed my friends and family here. Lots of people move to Arizona and the climate is great, but there's more to it than that. So, I moved back.
"Here I'm very active in the community, play tennis and have lots of tennis friends and I go to breakfast quite a bit with my three sons who live in the area."
-- Jim Mooney, a resident of The Moorings in Arlington Heights
"When seniors tell me they are thinking about moving somewhere new, especially someplace they have vacationed, I tell them to go there for an extended period of time, particularly in a different season of the year, to see if they like living there, not just vacationing there," said Jan Abernethy, deputy director of Human Services for the village of Mount Prospect.
"Vacation is a frivolous time when you generally spend more money than usual and people look at that time and place with a rosy glow," she said. "Before you sell your current home and relocate, do some in-depth investigation of that new place."
How much will it cost to live there full-time? Consider taxes, utility costs, insurance and other cost-of-living issues. Is it considered a retiree-friendly state or area?
Are the activities that you personally enjoy readily available? For instance, if you like to bowl, is there a bowling alley nearby and will they put an individual in a league or do you have to come to them with a ready-made league?
If you are active in your church, is there a church nearby that you like? If you are a "joiner,"are there other opportunities for meeting people and making new friends -- like clubs, card groups, golf leagues, etc.?
Is there a park district or senior center which facilitates leisure activities?
"Living in a place for 12 months a year is totally different from living there long-term. Make sure your expectations for the new place are realistic," Abernethy urged. "Take off the rose-colored glasses."
If you can afford it, she even suggests renting out your current home for a year and going to that new location and renting a place there for the same period of time. Before you give up the home you love, make sure that new location is all you are hoping it will be.
And if you are moving because you want to be closer to your children and grandchildren, have a heart-to-heart talk with those children before you move. Make sure your expectations match their reality.
Most young parents today work full time and when they are not working, they are busy with their children and keeping their houses maintained. They may not have much time to spend with you and you might end up being disappointed, Abernethy said.
Managing all of the free time you suddenly have can be challenging.
"The biggest surprise after retirement was that I could plan my days as I wanted and do things whenever I wanted. For example, when I was still working and I wanted to paint the house, I would get home on a Friday evening, have a quick dinner and get out and prep the areas to be painted before darkness set in. Then I would get up early on Saturday and paint all day till dark and then go to bed and get up early again on Sunday and hope to finish the painting by dark.
"After retirement, I got up whenever I woke up. I would have a leisurely breakfast, read the morning paper and then go out for a couple of hours and prep some of the areas that needed it and quit for the day whenever I wanted. Whenever I felt like I wanted to do more, I would do a little more another day and so forth until the job was finished."
-- Don Fischer, a resident of Wyndemere in Wheaton
"I realized I'm a person who needs to be busy. So I was happy when I was able to go back to the same school where I had taught in a paid, part-time position as a tutor in a reading program. It was five days a week, but not the whole day. It allowed me to stay connected to my co-workers and work family while being able to stay engaged and do more with my church family and my own family."
-- Margaret Fairhead, a resident of The Moorings in Arlington Heights
Time management is crucial to a happy retirement, said Mary Jo Zeller, director of My Solutions (formerly Gerosolutions), a division of Lutheran Life Communities.
"It is not so much about how much free time you have, but how you spend and manage it," Zeller said. "A lack of planning can lead to boredom and eventually to depression. You need to develop a focus for your free time and continue to set life goals."
So many of us are over-scheduled during our work years, so we don't want to plan and adhere to a schedule when we retire. But, surprisingly, not having a schedule or plan of any kind can actually be a stressor for some people, Zeller said.
"You don't need to fill every hour or day with a task or activity, but it is important to set goals like increasing your circle of friends or learning a foreign language or tackling projects around the house. People need to have a purpose to be happy. So even when there is no longer any pressure to be productive in a job, you should concentrate of personal growth," she said.
Some accomplish this by taking on part-time "encore" careers or by volunteering. Others do it by taking a course at the local community college or taking a lifelong learning course through the school district.
"Many retirees today are overwhelmed with the sheer number of choices they have, so they end up doing nothing. Instead, they should take on new challenges and set new goals. They should ask themselves questions. What is their passion? What brings them joy? How do they see themselves living in the future? By answering these questions, they can find renewed purpose," Zeller said.
"Retirement is a time when you can schedule your time around the things you are passionate about and find a new self. Suddenly it is not about the money. You are collecting experiences instead of things now and, as a result, you are continuing to feel that you are an integral part of the world," she said.
Can you truly devise a financial plan that can help manage risk during widespread economic problems and unexpected health problems?
Randy and Liz Sass of The Moorings in Arlington Heights were surprised by the recent economic collapse and the fact that their financial plan was not sufficient. As a result, they no longer take extended trips but instead have fun planning a periodic weekend getaway. They also try to take advantage of sales and coupons that reduce the cost of living. Senior discounts are also noted and appreciated.
It is never too late to devise a financial plan or to amend one that is not performing well for you, said Kevin Cooney and John Furjanic, partners in Upstream Investments, which has offices in Chicago and Westchester.
"Anyone who was badly harmed by the collapse of 2008 was probably too heavily invested in the stock market," Cooney said.
As one approaches retirement, it is important to consult with a financial planner, as well as with your accountant, attorney and your company's benefits administrator, in order to craft a blueprint for the retirement you personally want and can afford.
"Ask yourself when you want to retire, do you have enough money and what does your ideal retirement look like and, based on the answers to those questions and detailed information about your assets, a financial planner can run a cost analysis that will tell you when the prudent time is for you to start taking Social Security and what you should do to create an income plan and lower volatility in your assets," Cooney said.
"The fact that interest rates have been so low for numerous years now has hurt savers and those on a fixed income and have spurred people to take on more risk because that is where the growth has been," Cooney said. "There are alternatives, however, to the stock market. But you need to have a financial plan in place."
Furjanic urges clients to avoid "off the shelf" solutions because everyone's situation and needs are different.
"Rules of thumb are a good place to start, but they are not for everyone. There are so many moving parts when it comes to making a financial plan that you really need to consult a professional," he advises.
Furjanic and Cooney advocate a plan that combines investments and either life insurance or long-term care insurance or a hybrid policy that includes both.
"Insurance plays a large role in financial planning. Long-term care is an expense that can destroy a life's savings. While some long-term care policies can be expensive, purchasing one early can help reduce the cost. There are also hybrid policies that have long-term care protection, coupled with a death benefit. The industry continues to try to find innovative products to help address the rising cost of health care," Cooney said.
Upstream Investment Partners, which is independently owned and operated, offers securities through Sigma Financial Corp. They can be reached at (866) 967-5813. Their suburban office is located at 1 Westbrook Corporate Center, Westchester.
Is Medicare truly the panacea for seniors of today that it was for our parents or has it changed?
"At the time of my hospital discharge from extensive foot/ankle reconstruction surgery in December, I learned that because I was coded 'under observation' at the time of admittance, none of my patient hospital days (no matter how many or few there were) qualified for Medicare Part A skilled nursing care afterward. When transferred from the hospital to an acute care rehab facility, I was wheelchair-bound and I required daily physical therapy, as well as skilled nursing care. My three-week stay at the acute care facility was all at my expense."
-- Barbara Persenaire of Mount Prospect
Medicare has not changed, said Toby Edelman, an attorney with the Center for Medicare Advocacy in Washington, D.C. But the way it is being implemented has "morphed into madness."
In fact, that is the term she used while testifying before the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee during May.
The issue with "observation" of patients versus "admission" of patients began as a well-intentioned Medicare cost containment program about a decade ago. Outside contractors were hired to audit the way Medicare funds were being used and to recover "wasted" funds, Edelman said.
The government has the power to look at records as many as three years back and decide whether a hospital and doctor were right or wrong in admitting a patient to the hospital and if the decision is deemed inappropriate, even if Medicare has already paid the bill, they can demand reimbursement from the hospital.
As a result, hospitals are now exceedingly cautious about admitting a Medicare patient to the hospital, instead listing them as "under observation."
"It is the hospitals' defensive response to these audits," Edelman said.
As a result of this practice of "observing" patients instead of "admitting" them, Medicare recipients may be personally charged for services that Medicare would have paid if they were properly admitted as inpatients, the Center for Medicare Advocacy explains on its website. For example, patients may even be charged for their medications while they are hospitalized (so they might want to bring them from home).
"Most significantly, patients will not be able to obtain any Medicare coverage if they need nursing home care after their hospital stay. Medicare only covers nursing home care for patients who have a three-day inpatient hospital stay. Observation status doesn't count toward the three-day stay," the website states.
In addition, Medicare recipients who are enrolled in Part A only, will not have their hospital stay covered if they are put in for "observation" because that category of stay is only covered by Part B.
Edelman said there are bills before both houses of Congress seeking to remedy this problem by decreeing that all hospital time is equal. Hospitals, nursing homes, the American Medical Association and many other prominent organizations that seldom agree about any other issues are united in their disdain for this practice, she said.
"Most patients have no idea that this is happening and there is no law specifying that the hospital needs to notify them or their families. And, because in most hospitals there is no special area for observation patients, there is no way to know unless you specifically ask," she said.
"This makes no sense for anyone. If a doctor makes the decision that a hospital stay is medically necessary, Medicare should pay," Edelman said.
And many rehabilitation facilities are telling incoming patients who didn't have three inpatient hospital nights to bring large checks with them before admittance. One family that Edelman knows had to cash-in their mother's life insurance policy in order to pay for her rehabilitation.
"Instead of spending the money on patient care, Medicare is spending it on deciding if individuals should have been inpatients or outpatients up to three years ago. As I said, this program has morphed into madness," she said.
How do you deal with the loss of your spouse, family and friends?
"When I was younger, I would see older people suffer losses and disappointments that I thought would be devastating, yet they would go on. I couldn't figure out how they were so resilient. Now I realize that as you age, you gain wisdom. You learn to adapt more than I thought possible."
-- Patricia O'Grady, a resident of The Moorings in Arlington Heights
Everyone deals with loss differently, said Abernethy of Mount Prospect's Human Services department. Some rationalize that they are getting older and they cannot expect to be free from loss. They become resigned to gradually losing the people close to them.
Others feel the loss of companionship very keenly, particularly the loss of a spouse.
"I counsel seniors to get out and meet people of all ages through special interest groups. If you like to garden, join a garden club. If you like to play cards, join a card group. If you enjoy being involved in the community, join a civic organization like Kiwanis, Rotary or the Lions.
" These types of groups help you meet and make friends with people of many ages with whom you have something in common. You don't want to only socialize with other seniors."
Spending time with younger people also keeps your mind and body active and allows you to retain friendships after your older friends are gone.
"People who keep mentally and physically active and are not afraid to try new things are the ones who age best. When you keep your brain moving, it is amazing how much you have to offer others of all ages," Abernethy said.