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How to Decide What to Do Next When You Retire

A chat with 'The Retiree Assistant,' Jean Risley


Next Avenue Blogger
Next Avenue Blogger

It’s a huge question for new retirees and people nearing retirement: What will I do with myself?! Jean Risley, a former Presbyterian minister in Lincoln, Mass., with a master’s in computer science and an MBA, was wondering that herself when she retired at 70 in 2015.

“Part of what faced me when I admitted to myself that I was going to be retired was that there were so many choices and so much information,” Risley told me. So to figure out what she’d do in retirement, Risley starting asking others and doing some research.

Then, to help people like her, Risley put together what she’d learned in a terrific, inexpensive self-published paperback filled with helpful forms, worksheets and tips: How to Decide What to Do Next When You’re Retired ($9.95).

Think about how what you’re doing in the active stage of your life spills over to the next, the more settled stage of retirement.

— Jean Risley

I recently interviewed Risley — who is whipsmart and has a dry wit — and asked her to share some advice for retirees and soon-to-be’s:

Jean Risley 4Next Avenue: Why did you want to write this book?

Jean Risley: My purpose is to help people with the step before they’re ready to navigate retirement.

What’s your goal for readers?

The primary thing is living the life you want to be living. You have a choice of what kind of things you want to spend your life on. So you need to know what your convictions are. My goal is for readers to say: ‘This is who I am and this is what’s important to me and what I want to spend the rest of my time on’ — putting people in control of their choices.

Tell me a little about your career before retirement. Or should I say careers?

I had three fifteen-year careers. The first, coming out of school, was computer programming. In those early days, it was a women’s ghetto. I worked on artificial intelligence and for a company that designed the ARPANET [the government network that became the Internet] research for pharmacology. Then I got an MBA and did management consulting and developed a software product. Then I became involved with financial services companies and was in charge of a data warehousing project from credit cards.

God said I should do something more meaningful, so I wound up in ministry in my fifties. I was a pastor for thirteen years in New York and Massachusetts. I went to churches in transition or conflict to help them figure out what to do next. After several of those, the stress level got so high that I realized I had to do something that wasn’t another high-stress environment, and that was how I really retired.

How did retirement go for you?

I was totally exhausted physically and anemic for several months after leaving the last church. I was just trying to have enough energy to get up in the morning. With doctors’ help, I got back to a physical state where I could make choices again.

Then I wondered: What am I going to do when I get up in the morning? I took lots of good advice from anyone I could find on the Internet about making goals and developing good habits. I never liked habits, but I built that into the process to figure out what I wanted to do next.

How did you start this process?

One of the most important influences was the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance people. They had a retreat for pastors suffering from compassion fatigue; that’s what they call it when you go into situations like floods or shootings and the needs are so great, but you come to a point where you have no more resources. I was at the same point. The Presbyterian Disaster Assistance people had tools on how to find your way back. They said: ‘You need to be reminded of who you are.’

And then you got help from a retirement support group?

I was going to a retired pastors’ group and I started writing down what I heard and that turned out to be the core of the book.

You think retirees are less satisfied with their life in retirement then retirees were fifteen years ago and even five years ago. Why?

We are the first generation who thought we would live forever and we’re not used to taking bad news. As we get older, we work on feeling and looking younger and we avoid the fact that we are going to age and probably are going to die. Our culture thinks it would be good to live forever, so we have a tendency to avoid thinking about retirement.

And people have higher expectations than in previous generations, along with so much information overload. So there are high expectations and a delay of recognizing the reality of things.

You say that most of the work preparing for retirement is spent on finances, but very little is on getting ready for the retirement experience. Tell me what you mean.

When I started feeling like I needed help, I went to bookstores. I found a lot on financial planning and investments; all the investment companies have huge programs on what to do with your retirement money, too. But I couldn’t find anything like what I ended up putting together.

What do people need to do before they retire to prepare for retirement?

Find your personal purpose. Think about how what you’re doing in the active stage of your life spills over to the next, the more settled stage of retirement.

For example, I like to sail and have since my children were born. I couldn’t be doing crew after I had my knee replacement, but I still want to be on the water. So my nursing home will have a dock and a pontoon boat with someone wheeling my chair onto the boat.

You need to be able to say: ‘I love doing this, but I know I won’t be able to do it after a certain point. What do I get out of the activity that I can get some other way where I’ll be physically able to do it?’

How To Decide What to do NextTell me about how habits play a role in retirement and retirement planning.

Part of our culture says that habits are boring. But habits help you avoid wasting time on things. Retirement is less scary if you know that on Tuesday you don’t have to think: ‘Do I have enough groceries?’ It makes life easier if you know things you depend on will be handled because you did them as part of your routine.

Like naps. We retired people really need them! There’s a tendency to say if you’re vital and thinking young, you can keep on pushing through. But you don’t want to be so worn down that you can’t do the things you intended to do.

You say people should uncover their own personal meaning and values. What do you mean and how should they do it?

When we’re busy raising children and going to work and doing community things, we don’t have time to step back and look at the big picture. Often, things we dreamed and cared about get put aside and we say: ‘Someday, when I have enough time, I’m going to do that.’

It could be buried in your childhood dreams — an idea you had about how you would make a difference. But someone said: ‘That’s impractical,’ so you pushed it under the covers and went on with your daily life.

As a pastor, we say your personal mission is where your talents and passion meet the needs of the world. Your purpose statement should be: What am I good at? And what do I really care about? The book shows you how to do this systematically.

You say people should plan for each stage of retirement. What do you mean and how should they do it?

The stages are about your physical, mental, and resource limitations.

When retirement starts, you’re in the go-go stage where you can do whatever you used to be able to do. Then you start to slow down, which is always a bad surprise. You discover you can’t walk that far or that fast. That’s a time you need to be prepared for.

Think about what you will want to do when you can’t walk or climb stairs.

You say people should identify personal goals and directions. What do you mean and how should they do it?

That’s where personal meaning comes in: Choose goals based on what matters to you. Think globally and locally. If hunger is important to you, look for ways to help in your community. You could send a check or publicize the food pantry or visit the homeless and prepare meals for them.

Tell me about the tools and worksheets in your book and how they can be helpful.

One that I haven’t seen other people do is about tracking. Maybe you used to write a to-do list so you could cross things off. The tracking tool says how many things you got done this week, so you can say: ‘Wow! That’s significant!’

Finally, tell me what retirement is like for you now. What do you do all day?

For me, the issue is balance. One day I’ll be with my new grandbaby. I still do a little on the computer. I like to balance family, fun stuff, vocational stuff and health stuff. And I have three or four other books I want to write sometime.

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