North Country Retirement

I was dismayed this morning while scanning one of my on-line news sources – I refuse to use TV or printed media for news as they all lack true journalism and have their own agendas – and seeing the headline; “Why You Shouldn’t Retire At 65”.  Of course I had to peruse said article and when I finished I was initially left with a sad feeling that slowly built into disgust at what is now being sold as the ‘new’ norm; working until one is at least 70 if not older.  Of course I can understand the need to do so if one’s finances are not supportive of retirement but some of the other reasons given were just downright pathetic.  What does it say about this country that a ‘pundit’ thinks you should continue to work past age 65 if you ‘still have a job’..?  My God, does this implies that nowadays jobs for people over 60 are so scarce if you are lucky enough to have one you should cling to it..?!?  There were predictable tripe such as not retiring because you truly like your job – who would like working for someone else so much they’d forgo being the master of their own personal time – and something that I’ve always felt reflects very poorly on the whole ‘work for a living’ concept – you may not want to retire because for decades your job has been almost your entire life so suddenly having ‘no direction’ in your life is a bad thing.

I was literally forced out of the work place in ’06 by a combination of a changing job market, the beginnings of the financial meltdown and my age.  After working corporate for decades with a Fortune 500 firm I tired of the almost constant travel and thus took a position as a contractor in IT support with the state of Ohio.  My three year contract played out in February of 2006 leaving me a few years over 50 but in what I mistakenly thought was still a solid field in the American job market.  I failed to understand what outsourcing was about to do both to the salaries within the field and to position availability.  For 18 months I sadly followed all the traditional methods of looking for work with no luck; I even explored going back to work in my college major – food science – but soon learned that as soon as I was asked about my ten year hiatus from said field and I explained I went into IT my interview was over.  Despite a degree and 20+ years experience in the field I was ‘persona non grata’; I’m sure the fact that I’d worked in IT so it was assumed as soon as I found an IT position I’d jump ship as well as my age contributed to my inability to locate work.  Thanks to a very wise financial adviser I decided to take an SEPP (Substantially Equalized Periodic Payment) until I reached 59 1/2 years of age; thankfully doing this helped me be available to my mother as she slowly succumbed to the horrific disease Alzheimer’s.  However, I was only able to do so because when I’d first started working my father gave me probably the most important advice I’d ever receive from him: he told me as soon as I started a new job I should immediately sign up to have the max amount of my salary withheld and invested in the available company supported investment programs.  This I did across my almost 30 year employment career and because of doing so, along with some additional investing and the assistance much later on of a truly skilled financial manager along with life decisions (no children, no long term relationship, etc.), I did have the means to retire much earlier than I had intended.

Initially I did struggle with so much free time and it was frustrating to send out well over 100 resumes in just eight months of ’06 with no results; in this sense although I never did work again after my stint as a contractor I really didn’t accept I was retired until August of ’07.  However, once I recognized that with the ongoing world economic meltdown, the outsourcing of so many IT positions and my age I had little chance of finding a job I came to accept my situation.  At first it was difficult because I was making a mortgage payment but when Mom’s Alzheimer’s worsened and we had to move her into assisted living I sold my place for no real profit because of the housing bubble bursting and became a caretaker of the family’s home.  During this time I realized it was most likely I would never be financially able to retire to Alaska; I began to prepare myself and the process was long and painful.  Only my financial adviser even spoke to me about the possibility and did try to keep my dream alive.  I truly struggled living in the family’s home in Dearborn (MI), knowing no one and spending time visiting Mom; it was tough.  But I slowly started to realize volunteering looked like something I should try and happily the assisted living folks were only too happy to have me start volunteering.  I discovered I did enjoy working with the elderly and particularly those with memory impairment; this enjoyment was reflected in the quality and quantity of my efforts.  I continued to volunteer for two years after Mom passed; only my decision to retire to Alaska once I ran the numbers in January of 2012 and realized I could caused me to stop my volunteering.  For this I was eternally grateful as I was not only able to assist Mom with her final 18 months but I also made a positive difference in many, many elderly people’s lives and I discovered the real joy in volunteering for worth causes.

Musical performance for the Reminiscence residents of the Northville Sunrise

Musical performance for the Reminiscence residents of the Northville Sunrise

Many of my good friends could not believe I was volunteering with Alzheimer’s patients let alone loving it; as they often reminded me I ‘didn’t suffer fools gladly’ during my working days.  I cannot explain how or why this was; it simply ‘was’ and I went with the flow.  This taught me some very important lessons in my retirement; just as in general living attitude is everything in retirement!  If you fear it or cannot imagine what you will do with your time you will probably have issues.  Thankfully I was never someone who felt ‘defined’ by my job; sure, when talking with peers or colleagues I would probably have introduced myself as ‘working in IT field support for Company X’ but within me I knew I was so much more.  I’ve always possessed a strong spiritual side so to think of my essence as a salaried slave to some anonymous corporation was completely non sequitur.  I felt much more defined by my love of Nature, my joy in camping and hiking, my newly discovered love of volunteering, my joy in assisting the elderly, my interest in Nature photography and meteorology and, of course, my deep love of Alaska; to me these really formed the foundation of who I was as a human being.  Therefore I suspect I didn’t really struggle with the whole ‘loss of identity’ thing when I retired.

In hindsight I needed those three years of assisting Mom, discovering volunteering, cultivating the patience and willingness to listen required when working with the elderly to really make my retirement work for me.  All this and more really brought out my heretofore relatively low key extrovert tendencies; this, in turn, made it possible for me to experience many things I wouldn’t have even tried prior to these situations.  I spent many days wondering if I were really ready to retire to Alaska especially as I’d already decided I wanted to live rural and this was something I’d never before experienced.  Sure, I’d done my homework but one can only gather so much information regarding a topic like rural Alaskan existence from reading; I needed to talk with people who had experienced this lifestyle.  Thankfully my willingness to engage strangers in conversation gave me five hours of talk with a native Alaskan who lived in rural Valdez his entire life on the flight from Chicago to Anchorage which began my house hunting experience.  I had already held lengthy email conversations with my realtor and now good friend Holly and when we checked into ‘The Susitna River Lodge’ I immediately befriended the owners; they, in turn, introduced me to other locals and I talked at length about my plans and soaked up all they had to say about living in rural Alaska.  Because of this I felt much better prepared for what I knew would most likely be the biggest adventure of my life.

And almost three months into the experience I am indeed living my dream and biggest adventure!  I’ve met all my neighbors – up here anyone within a mile is a ‘neighbor’ – and have started working on developing friendly, conversational relationships with other locals who work in the local stores or PO.  I’ve decided to test those volunteering waters once again by offering time to the local NPR radio station – KTNA Talkeetna (FM 88.9); although I’ve only visited the staff and seen the operation twice I’m going back for more training this (Tuesday) afternoon.  To my shock I am being groomed to be a ‘reader’ for the local news; I can’t think of a much better way to get my name out to the locals!  I’ve really liked all the staff and other volunteers I’ve met to this point; I can see this opportunity as something I will find invaluable come winter.  Now that the tourists have largely left for another year I understand ‘Latitude 62’ which is a restaurant/bar in town is quite the gathering place for the locals; I plan to begin to visit on a more regular basis and strike up some new friendships.  The openness and willingness to talk on the part of the locals is just so refreshing and radically different from so much of what I experienced in the urban areas of the lower 48; there’s none of that ‘distrust by default’ attitude or that wariness engendered when someone is expecting you to want something.  Happily I truly believe I’ve found my home and unlike my life during the 30 years I worked and never really became part of a community because I relocated every two to three years to chase a promotion or new job I intend to put down roots in Talkeetna.

And so I once again find myself full circle and am wondering if I were to have taken this supposed ‘new’ normal and refused to do anything but look for work after my IT days to the exclusion of all else would I have ever found a job and more importantly, would I be living the dream I now experience?  Its possible I might have found work but almost assuredly at much lower wages and I most likely would’ve been ‘under employed’ as well and working in a much less pleasant environment.  But my honest feeling is if I worked until I was even ‘just’ 65 let alone 70 I would never have undertaken this dream.  I know the entire relocation process put an enormous strain on my body, spirit and emotions; there were days I wondered just what the heck I’d been thinking!  The months of planning had seen many ups and down and the complete re-writing of the relocation plan at least twice.  Getting the truck properly packed after ‘Two Men And A Truck’ had demonstrated such poor abilities was draining.  That very long 4,245 mile drive from Northville (MI) to Talkeetna (AK) via the Mackinac Bridge was a real butt buster which required nine and a half days two of which saw over 700 miles in driving.  Getting the truck unloaded up here was physically draining and the process of unpacking and organizing my new home often seemed to never end; I still have a sore back from moving heavy boxes around during the process.  I had to deal with many unexpected issues after arriving up here not the least of which was the fact this house is in a null zone for cell transmission strength; only by mounting an outdoor cell antenna and using an amplifier to boost the weak signal and a special planar antenna inside to retransmit the signal do I now have cell reception indoors.  In addition there was the snafu caused by not realizing I did not have PO delivery to this physical address; this required renting a PO box but more importantly meant I had handed out an incorrect mailing address to all my family, friends, business concerns and the like which had to be corrected.  I’m still working through the fall out from this error.  While its largely history now and thus I can look back on it with a certain sense of pride and humor while marveling at both the expected and unexpected learnings I also cannot help but realize I wouldn’t have been able to do so if I were even five years older let alone ten or more.

And so it comes down to this; retirement is what you made it (via investing, saving, lifestyle choices, etc.) and will make it (willingness to try new things, a need to make new friends while keeping old ones, a need to really look at fulfilling one’s dreams, etc.).  While volunteering I often heard elderly folks reminiscing and almost to a person they would sadly say if they could change one thing in their pasts it would be to go back and do something they never did often because it seemed too daunting, time consuming or expensive.  It didn’t take long for me to realize Alaska would become such a failure for me if I didn’t take the chance, make the effort and give it my best; at some point I refused to be one of those older folks sadly reminiscing about dreams unfulfilled.  In so doing I’ve become a kind of ‘poster boy’ for the over 55 crowd who dream of fulfilling dreams of their own; to them I say ‘never, ever give up on your dreams regardless of how impossible they might seem!’.  But I would also council this; do not let uncertain economics, political instabilities or family situations cause you to postpone your retirement under the guise of doing so for ‘just a bit longer so I can handle this’.  If I’ve learned anything from life its that our time on this plane is limited and so we should embrace our challenges but also learn to celebrate ourselves through doing for others as well as giving back to ourselves.  Failure to do this will most likely lead to unfulfilled dreams and sad, soft reminiscing’s in a wheel chair…

Anana with Nine and Luba

Luba (a Nazi death camp survivor), her daughter Nina and my Anana in the Sunrise of Northville’s Reminiscence Neighborhood