Retirement: The Not-So-Golden Years?

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Many who enter retirement may discover the reality is not quite what they had imagined. That picture-perfect scene with the happy retiree reclining in a sunny spot while sipping a cool drink is not automatically waiting at the end of a career.

There is no guarantee we will experience that fulfilling retired life promised in the many advertisements that bombard us. And yet we keep our heads down and endure all that work and life can throw our way, saving and scrimping, stubbornly holding onto that vision of a meaningful and exciting second act. This is our time to do what we want, when we want. We are finally free to explore our passions and live the life we have always wanted to live. Or are we?

People are living longer these days, which means retirement can extend for 20 or more years. In 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau, there were 53,364 centenarians. Fast-forward to 2050, when this number is estimated to explode to 600,000, according to UnitedHealthcare.

Although a longer life is something we all want, that promise may include the unfortunate baggage of declining health, increasing medical expenses and the real possibility that we may outlive our savings.

And with the 70-million-strong baby boomer generation promoting 10,000 of its members to age-65 status each day, retirement and its realities will be experienced more broadly and sooner rather than later.

The not-so-golden years. For years now, my 80-year-old aunt has maintained a positive outlook on life, always with a smile on her face and good cheer to share. Although she lost her husband of more than 50 years some time ago, and despite the fact she has recently moved to a senior community where her occasional forgetfulness is not a safety concern, she keeps on keeping on.

She considers my generation youngsters. I guess it is all relative, but I like the sound of that! When I talk to her about enjoying her golden years, she scoffs at the idea. She makes it quite clear that being 80 is not that golden. Although she may not have financial worries, she has slowed down, has numerous infirmities to deal with each day and can no longer drive. "Don't let anyone fool you, the golden years are what you are living right now," she advises this baby boomer.

My aunt goes on to say that in her estimation, the real golden years are between ages 40 and 60, when you are generally physically fit and have your wits about you. The family is growing and you are an important piece in the lives of your children and grandchildren. Those around you still look to you respectfully and value your insights and advice. No one worries about you driving to the store and getting lost on the way. If you are unfortunate and take a fall, you are less likely to do any serious damage such as breaking a hip, a real fear that many in their supposed "golden years" face each day. When you wake up to begin your day, your first thought is not what pills you need to take but what new possibilities might this day hold.

So after years of hard work and preparation to live the retired life, will the reality be that we actually lived the best years of our lives on our way to this destination? If that is likely to be the case, we might all benefit from enjoying the journey a bit more rather than saving it all for retirement.

We can try to spend more time with family and less time at work. Maybe we should take that trip we have been waiting for while we are still physically fit and energetic and feeling adventurous at heart. If we dream of lending a helping hand and volunteering once we're retired, perhaps we can get involved with something along those lines now rather than wait. Since the realities of aging await all of us, perhaps as we approach those advanced years, we can make the extra effort to stay as healthy as possible. We cannot eliminate the impact of time, but maybe we can delay it just a bit. Just maybe we can stretch out the quality of our time lived along the way.

If the life experienced by my aunt is typical for retirees, we do not want to waste the best years of our lives. And if our golden years are, in fact, happening right now, we may want to refocus our plans and do our best to live them to their fullest.

Dave Bernard is the author of "I Want To Retire! Essential Considerations for the Retiree to Be". Although not yet retired, he focuses on identifying and understanding the essential components of a fulfilling and meaningful retirement. He shares his discoveries and insights on his blog Retirement-Only The Beginning.

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