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The Sticky Business of Retirement from Health Care

A taxi driver asked me recently if I was still working. I hurriedly assured him that I was indeed “still working” as I was not yet old enough to retire – that, I’m afraid, was a lie!. What surprised me was the rush of emotion the question provoked and the amazing need to tell that lie. What is the matter with me?

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All my peers are having trouble with the retirement decision.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be the person who looked forward to retirement, who didn’t feel the guilt of letting people down or the distress of no longer being of use to society! You could look forward to enjoying all the things that you had not had time to do in this working life;  learning new skills and  broadening your life experience, catching bigger fish, baking better cakes, playing better golf, keeping bees, making jewellery, writing short stories, doing a better job of looking after yourself, spending more time with friends and family and  experiencing a level of engagement with your grandchildren much richer than you had time for with your own children.

(Unfortunately, even as I write this paragraph part of me is mentally labelling all these things as things of no importance compared to work!)

It's hard, when you have spent your life being responsible for people’s wellbeing, to give up that role. The people you’ve looked after need plenty of warning so that they can move smoothly to the care of another practitioner. You will even miss them. But that, of course, is only part of the story.

Why is it so complicated?

For some health practitioners work has not just been the way they earn their living but their life and  identity. It’s hard to give up something like that. Is it possible to say “I used to be a therapist” or “I used to be a GP”? Of course it is, but did you feel it stick in your throat when you tried it out for size just now? What do you think you are worth as a person if you are not a GP or a therapist or a health professional of some kind?

It's all about our core beliefs (always)

Apart from financial issues the biggest barrier to timely retirement planning seems to be the belief that “if I am still working, I am aging well”. Does working at 70 prove you are a “young 70” or does it say that you haven’t got the imagination or the courage to stop and live a different life?

I may sound like I am being harsh, but all these things apply to me. I am, not a young “upandcoming” telling the old folks to move over. I am someone who is struggling with the idea that if I am not working, I am nobody.

and it’s also about getting old

One of the sad truths about getting older is that for most of us our functioning starts to deteriorate, subtly at first, but more obviously as time goes by. None of us want to do anyone any harm or be forced to retire because we are a danger to others but none of us believes that, in our case, that sort of thing is possible.

I have some friends who are very unwell. They did not retire until they got too sick to work any longer. That’s not a happy ending to a life of dedication to others. But how do we decide about the timing of retirement when all these internal pressures are driving us to keep working while we can?

Let’s start by planning all the good things we are going to do when we don’t have to get up every day and rush to work! (Not to mention lie awake at night worrying about it)

It may not be tomorrow but hopefully we will all live long enough to enjoy a period of pleasant healthy retirement. And if we decide to keep working for a while longer, let’s hope we have the wisdom to do it in moderation.

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Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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