Retirement can be compared to one long vacation. It can be a vacation with a longtime partner. It can become a time of renewal as the couple has time to break out of old routines, try new things, and see the "other" in new ways. It can be a vacation with a new partner, testing the reality of first impressions, discovering hidden riches. It might also demand adjusting to unexpected angles of personality.
What is the secret of those couples who have made retirement into an eternal vacation together, and who seem to float like the bride and groom that frequently appear in Chagall's paintings?
During retirement, as on vacation, couples float on a cloud of time. They are free to use their time as they wish. This freedom can be exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying.
A person has to recreate himself on that cloud of time. A couple has to recreate their relationship within that freedom. Thrown together without their work schedules, husband and wife might get on each other's nerves, pull in different directions. "Time together points up our differences," one friend lamented. "I talk. He's quiet. I love to explore new places. He wants to sit and read. I expand in a new place. He contracts." Imagine these differences and the irritations they create, stretching over decades of retirement. What a hell that can be.
What is the secret of those couples who have made retirement into an eternal vacation together and seem to float like the bride and groom that frequently appear in Chagall's paintings? How do they do it? My cousins, Norm and Elayne are such a charmed couple. They enjoy long walks together. They are in their early seventies and still like to go dancing. Elayne is an artist and they regularly frequent museums and concerts together. They have tracked down small local museums in the area where they live. As many pensioners, they must live within a fixed budget, but seem to find inexpensive ways to enjoy themselves." "Last week," Elayne relates, "we went to a nearby hotel where there's a great piano player in the lobby. We had a light meal and listened to him play jazz and some of our old favorites from the forties and fifties."
They are a living example of the fact that retirement does not have to be a luxury vacation, a first-class cruise. It's the ability to celebrate each activity, whether large or small. It's cultivating a retirement relationship together. Norm and Elayne have a few good friends. But it is clear that they are best friends to each other.
"It's all very subjective," says Elayne, who attributes their happy retirement to the background of their marriage. "We don't take being together for granted," she explains. "Norm worked hard in the early years of our marriage, building up a gas station and garage business with his brother. He would go out early in the morning, and often come home at ten or eleven at night. I was very lonely as a young homemaker raising our three children, and I'm so grateful that now we have time together."
Norm and Elayne came from the same background. In fact, they met through a mutual cousin. Elayne feels that this contributed to the fact that they can share so many of the same interests, like nature and art. And it is their involvement in these areas that makes their retirement so rich. But it didn't start out that way. Elayne also educated Norm to appreciate art. She is the quieter, more pensive of the two. He's a warm, good-humored people person. In order to enjoy the "together" each one also has to have his/her own space. Elayne does her painting. Norm is handy, fixing things around the house. And three times a week, he volunteers to repair medical equipment for an organization that lends equipment to the sick and disabled. "All the volunteers love him," says Elayne. "He's the life of the party, and he's accomplishing something."
Good Retirements and Good Vacations Don't Just Happen on Their Own
A good retirement, like a good vacation, doesn't just come about on its own. It has to be planned, structured. Even lying around on the beach doing nothing has to be planned. Which beach? When? It is often the women who are the social directors, planning the couple's activities, as in Elayne and Norm's case. "For years his basic concern was running the business, and I organized everything else, including our social life," says Elayne, "and this has become the pattern in our retirement."
But how does one avoid the nagging pattern that often occurs when one member of the family, frequently the wife, creates the social tenor of the retirement schedule, but then has to push the husband to join her? The husband remains passive, both relying on her to organize their lives and resenting it. Norm and Elayne have avoided this. To some extent, it's because Norm has come to love Elayne's interests. He wasn't initially interested in art, but he was interested in Elayne, and wanted to be involved in her life. Slowly, he came to understand art and enjoy it. He gave it a chance. To a lesser extent, Elayne is involved in his volunteering activities and the veterans' group to which he belongs. But she eagerly listens to the stories he brings home from his activities.
There's a balance between individuality and togetherness. And most of all, they don't keep score, who's doing what for whom. An active retirement assumes good health. Otherwise, all these vacation joys become increasingly limited. That doesn't mean that one has to be Health Incorporated. It's natural that there be some health problems at this age. Norm, for example, has a heart condition, but it is under control. It would be foolish to think that, in general, Norm and Elayne float in a problem-free zone of life. There is no such thing. But their passionate interests and mutual respect have made their retirement into a true vacation.