Keeping Busy in Retirement

Q. [For Eric and Nancy Anderson] You seem to be retired. Have you any advice for those health care professionals who are still fighting in the trenches and hoping one day to retire also?

A. Colleagues and old friends from medical school vary from those who say they are happy to be out of it to others who despair that for some reasons they’ve had to give up their careers. Yet there seems to be a consensus among those who are happily retired that they needed to stay busy either in a sport or a hobby or in something that still challenged them.

Many claim money is important. It’s a fallacy, they say, that when you retire your annual expenses shrink to 70% of what they were formerly. They all say the contrary is true. You may have the mortgage paid off, but travel, dining out and recreation costs increase — as does occasional monetary help to struggling family members. Financial planning for retirement needs to start early. Who was it who said, “Money doesn’t buy happiness. But I’m talking about stage money!”

Money aside, what do some health professionals feel has contributed to their successful retirement? For answers I had breakfast this fall with four retired doctors. What they said had a lot in common.

Roger Chabra, MD, a surgeon got his medical degree from Christian Medical College in Ludhiana, India and his surgical boards from the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, Scotland. After seven years in the British National Health Service he relocated to the United States.

“Doctors’ identity is tied up in what they do,” he says. “Indeed I thought ‘If I retire I am nothing.’”

Chabra feels people close to retirement should have something to move into, that if you are closing one door another should open.

His advice? You do need a break from what you’ve been doing. Do not retire entirely or you’ll be bored, he says. Find something less strenuous. For him, after retiring for four years, he took a position treating patients addicted to pain medicine. He really enjoys the satisfaction of getting them off their addiction.

Bob Franey, a clinical chemist, whose degree came from Boston College (and who studied further at Case Western) has contributed in his semi-retirement to the success of such pain clinics. He retired when he sold his laboratory to a major company. He now works part-time.

His work is mostly research and development but he negotiated an agreement to do genetic testing. Using mass spectrometry he went into measuring the levels of anti-rejection drugs that organ replacement patients need to be showing. A similar step was making sure patients at addiction clinics had levels of buprenorphine in their blood.

“If they didn’t,” he says, “it suggests they were selling the Suboxone and continuing to take their heroin!”

He continued to work because he wanted the income and he wanted to avoid boredom. But to his delight he found his work in semi-retirement fascinating. Clinical chemistry in the 1960s when he started was limited in its ability to help people in the field of medicine but now mass spectrometry offers more sophisticated and more sensitive clinical testing.

“The drug fingerprints you get are fast and accurate,” Franey says. “They are honest — unlike some other tests that try to be fast but may sacrifice accuracy.”

He offers other pointers for a contented retirement. He’s been happily married for 45 years and he and his wife frequently play gold. (“She’s had a hole-in-one twice,” he says, “And with golf and marriage, I have the best of both worlds.”) Although he recently broke some bones in his hand he went off to the golf course as soon the breakfast was over.

Seppo E. Rapo, MD, a thoracic surgeon, was born in Finland. He received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School. Your health is important in retirement, he points out. He had laparoscopy surgery for prostate malignancy a few years ago and wanted to semi-retire at the age of 65 but, he says, the system didn’t allow it. He was prepared to cut back and do surgical assists, but his malpractice rates would have remained the same and most insurance companies no longer wanted to pay for a surgical assistant.

“So I was squeezed out of surgery,” he says. He clearly misses it. “I started working for a clinical research company. So I’m basically still in the system.”

Rapo has an interesting perspective on retirement. He mentions the great British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), who was once approached by a young man seeking his advice on how to advance his career. Disraeli asked a series of questions of the young man, essentially taking him through the steps of such ambitions. “What do you want in your life?” he asked. The reply was to become a better lawyer. “And then what?” Disraeli asked. To keep rising in the world was the reply. “And then what?” Well, to end up as prime minister. “And then what?” Retire as a success! “And then what?” I guess I would die! “And then what?” Disraeli asked. The young lawyer hesitated; he had run out of responses.

Rapo thinks we don’t do enough thinking things through as we go through life. We need to be more prepared and ask ourselves, and then what? I assume he thinks we should plan more for a better retirement. We have earned it.

The fourth member of the impromptu group is Dr. Allen J. White, who, with his partner Sharon Hawkins, owns and runs the restaurant we met at: The Optimist Café in Yarmouthport at Cape Cod, Mass. He has a Ph.D in Health Management.

“Never retire!” he says emphatically. “I have seen people in their golden years struggling with no interests in life, their spiritual life diminishing some even with dementia. Retirement is the kiss of death for many people.”

He certainly keeps busy. He doesn’t have to tell me restaurants are hard work. My parents owned and ran a restaurant in Crieff, Scotland for 30 years — and what kept my nose to the grindstone in medical school was the realization if I failed medicine I would have to take over my parents’ restaurant. White seems to thrive in his restaurant but he has a wonderful staff that works like a Swiss watch.

“Keep your interests alive. Be productive.” Then belying his own words, he says, “Work in the field you know best.”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.