Retirement can be an endless golf game or constant trips to the doctor, depending on a whole host of factors, including luck. But either way, it's a stage of life that's usually more difficult and expensive than people expect.
Tell Me More's series on end-of-life issues continues today, with a roundtable discussion at a retirement home in Washington, D.C.
The lively trio talking with Michel Martin features Gerry Elliott, 80, a retired congressional aide; Krishna Roy, 83, a retired economist; and Rhonda Nixon, 87, an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church.
Happily, two of the people say they still feel youthful. "Things really haven't changed," Elliott says. "I still feel like I'm 21."
Not everyone is so fortunate.
As a recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, suggests, many people still have an overly rosy idea of what the golden years will bring. Thirty-nine percent of retirees say their health is worse, compared with 13 percent of nonretirees' expectations for life after work.
Many people don't take into account financial obligations that hit long after they've settled into retirement, such as drug costs or the need for a personal caretaker.
Even seniors who plan for retirement often find that they haven't saved enough, an issue NPR covered in extensive detail last month.
None of the folks who talked with Tell Me More had expected the rapid rise of costs at their retirement home or the equally sharp plummet of their investments during the Great Recession. But even in flush times, as people are living longer and getting more medical care than they expected, they often find their savings run short.
Still, even in old age, money isn't everything.
Despite the challenges of managing finances, adjusting to a new environment and lifestyle, declining health, and the death of friends and family, these seniors' stories suggest there's hope for a peaceful, happy, and perhaps even joyful retirement.
Each of the seniors interviewed has tried to remain active and productive.
Elliott cites his vast range of interests and hobbies as an important part of staying youthful, while Nixon mentions that interacting with a variety of people, especially younger friends who could help her get out of the house sometimes, was key to her health. Roy extols both physical and intellectual exercises, and left listeners with the following bit of advice: "Don't ever retire mentally. Keep your mind alive."
People of any age would do well to follow their examples.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. All week, TELL ME MORE has been exploring how families and our country are grappling with aging. We've been talking about financial security, health, care-giving and faith. Now, these may be difficult conversations to have and to hear, but we think they can help us prepare for the challenges that most of us will face if we are lucky enough to advance in age.
And, of course, we thought, how can we have this conversation without talking with people who are in those so-called golden years? Earlier this week, I sat down with a small but diverse group who are all living at Ingleside at Rock Creek. That is a retirement community here in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital.
Gerry Elliott is 80. He's a retired congressional aide. He's lived in Washington, D.C. since he and his wife Shelly moved from the Midwest in the 1960s. He and his wife have lived in this community for four years.
The Reverend Rhoda Nixon is 86 years old. She's an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. She's currently working on writing her memoir and is a proud grandmother.
Krishna Roy is 83. She's been living at Ingleside for six years. She's worn many hats in her life. She's worked with the Indian government, the United Nations and a community-based health care clinic, to name just a few. She's also the mother of two adult daughters.
Thank you all so much for joining us.
GERRY ELLIOTT: A pleasure to be here.
KRISHNA ROY: I'm excited.
MARTIN: I'd like to start with a simple question. Maybe it isn't a simple question. How is this stage of life different than what you expected? And Mr. Elliott, I'll start with you.
ELLIOTT: Yes, it is different. We moved here four years ago and we've learned a lot in that four years. One thing was that I learned more about my wife than I knew before we moved here. I greatly admired President - then was Kennedy - Obama when I saw him on PBS one night and he appeared with his wife and it suddenly struck me that he paid attention to her. He was listening to her and I'm afraid, sometimes, for whatever reason before we moved here, I wasn't paying that much attention to my wife. And so it's been a real change for us.
MARTIN: Well, Ms. Roy, what about you? How is this stage of life perhaps different from what you expected?
ROY: You know, when I was working, whether it was for my government or for the United Nations, it seemed like there was going to be a time when I would have to think in terms of retirement and then I started to think about it once I retired from the United Nations. The energy was going down. I was not as energetic in the morning and yet I needed to do something, so I had to combine accepting the limitations that my age was bringing and yet be able to do something for which, at the end of the day, I needed to feel that I tried to make a difference.
MARTIN: So what was the surprise? Was it that you still wanted to do things or was it that there was a mismatch between what you wanted to do and what your body wanted you to do?
ROY: The surprising part was that I wanted to do more as I was doing before and yet I could feel the constraints. And the second was now the time has come when I have to decide to go into a retirement home. There was a little bit of hesitation, the padded connotation that you go to a retirement home where there is assisted living and I - not only me. My children suddenly realized that that is what Mom is talking about and that was a little difficult for them. And also because I started to prepare my will and all those arrangements that you have to make and all those were a little tough for them to emotionally accept and that was difficult for me, also, to accept.
MARTIN: Reverend Nixon, what about you? I'm thinking, as an ordained minister, you will have accompanied people through many passages in their own lives, but is there something about this stage of life that has been surprising for you?
REVEREND RHODA NIXON: I think that this has been a transitional phase for me because, initially, I was in a whirl of work. I was associate pastor of a church and then I gave up being a minister to coming in here and wanting to transfer my ministry to Ingleside. So that's really what I did for a number of years.
MARTIN: What I was asking, though, is there something about this stage of your life that you find surprising?
NIXON: I guess I was surprised to be able to come and find a place, initially.
MARTIN: And to do the work that you had been doing. Well, why were you surprised by that? Did you feel that, if you moved to a retirement community, that would mean it was all over? You're just going to sit in your rocker all day and stare?
NIXON: No. But I just didn't know what I was going to do.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you about that, though. Did you find it - you know, in most cultures, age is accorded great respect and many people feel, though, in this country, it is not for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps because we feel that this country worships youth and some people feel it's also just because being old is not unusual anymore, so there's less reason to be so deferential to our seniors. It's not as unusual.
And I think that there's something that goes with that and something that can go with that can be a feeling that you don't matter anymore. And I wondered, particularly because all of you had very rich professional lives, very active lives, did you struggle with a feeling that you didn't matter anymore as you got older? Gerry, can I ask you this?
ELLIOTT: Yes. No. And I think I'm atypical. Although I worked on the Hill for 30 years, I never saw myself as being deeply involved in formulating legislation. I did things that my boss had to have done, administrative sort of tasks, and as a result, I'm very self-centered.
My wife and I decided not to have children. The problem that I had was - we lived in River Park in southwest Washington and we observed people our age and older who didn't have children, didn't have relatives in the area and, in effect, they were throwing themselves, if they needed help, on their friends and neighbors and we didn't do that.
MARTIN: Reverend Nixon, what about you? We were talking about the feeling that some people have, particularly in a country like this one where it feels very oriented toward young people - did you feel worried about feeling like you didn't matter as much anymore as you got older?
NIXON: No. I'm a little bit like Gerry. No, I didn't. My husband and I saw ourselves as still kind of young because we were very active. We were very busy. We began to have health problems, but other than that, we both saw ourselves as more youthful older adults. And at this point, this is the first time now I'm thinking about the fact that I'm old.
MARTIN: What has made you think about it?
NIXON: Well, the fact that I've been sick for the last year and been homebound and now my husband has passed and I'm beginning to say now I am at the golden stage.
MARTIN: I'm sorry about your husband, by the way.
NIXON: Yes. He passed on August the 27th, so at this point, I'm in a new phase. What do I do with myself? I certainly want to write the book that I've been wanting to write for some time, but in addition to that, what else am I supposed to do with my life?
MARTIN: Krishna, what about you?
ROY: In India, I'm the only one. We are six siblings and my parents lived until they were close to 90. No one went to a retirement home. None of my older sisters or my brother went to a retirement home. And so, for me to make that decision, my children were okay in the sense that sooner or later, I would be in a place other than where I was living. But to my family back in India, especially, this was not only a surprise, but this is not tradition we do in our family.
MARTIN: Did they feel your daughters were not doing right by you? Were they disturbed?
ROY: To some extent. Yes. And so, in other words, I strayed away from tradition and to that extent, I perhaps betrayed my tradition and my family, but they're adjusting, pleasingly, how to get used to this.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with a group of seniors. They live at Ingleside at Rock Creek. That's a retirement community here in Washington, D.C. We're talking about the challenges, the opportunities of getting older.
Do you ever feel mad at being older? Gerry, do you ever feel annoyed like...
ELLIOTT: I do not, I can honestly say. Maybe I'm not smart enough, but part of it, of course, goes back to the health issue. If you have your health, why shouldn't life just continue going on as it has in the past? What's happening, however, is people coming in Ingleside seem to be older and more infirm. Now, I suppose the economy can explain some of this. The real estate market can explain some of this, but - no. I have not had those feelings.
MARTIN: What about the money aspect of it? Is that frightening? The idea that you might live beyond the capacity of your savings? Especially because you did prepare. You and your wife did prepare carefully. Right?
ELLIOTT: Yes. And I have a great advantage in that I'm seven years older than my wife, so my wife has more of these fears than I do.
MARTIN: Reverend Nixon, what about you? Are you ever worried that you'll outlive your savings?
NIXON: I think I've thought a little more about it because we've had raises here, much more than I thought it would be, an annual based...
MARTIN: Increase in costs of the stay?
NIXON: Yes. And, of course, I've had so much expense for my husband. Medicine, for instance, last year was over $7,000, so that's giving me some apprehension.
MARTIN: Ms. Roy, about you? What are you worried about? Are you worried - I'm not saying that's - we're not going to just focus on worries, but I did want to ask. Are you worried about...
ROY: It's a concern, especially because, you know, most of what I earned for living this part of my life was invested and at this stage, the income is fixed. And what I used to depend on or could depend on from my investments - it's now become a liability more than an investment, liability emotionally because, every month I get a statement, my investments have gone down 20 percent, 30 percent, and it has not stopped.
Our commitments here increase every year and for obvious reasons. They're not trying to cheat us or anything, but the costs are going up much faster than - in other words, all these factors are around that, which can create a real concern and worry for you.
MARTIN: Is there something about aging, though, that is joyous?
MARTIN: Krishna, do you want to start?
ROY: Yes, it is. When I go to any of our Indian ceremonies, to anybody's house, I'm revered as though I'm - which I am - the oldest in that company. And I get served as though I am the queen of England and so that is very joyful.
MARTIN: Reverend Nixon, what about you? Is there an aspect of being at this stage of your life that is more wonderful than you had perhaps anticipated or that people might believe?
NIXON: I think that my husband and I have been able to still do a lot of celebration. We celebrated here with friends and family and we had a big 90th birthday for him. We had a real celebration for his passing. One granddaughter said, I've never been to a happy funeral before. Because we just talked about him and it was exciting and it was funny because he was a funny person. And so I think I've had a lot of joy, despite the fact I've had illnesses. We've had a lot of joy in our lives, too.
MARTIN: That's great. Gerry, what about you?
ELLIOTT: I hadn't thought about this before and it's interesting and I'm really not going to answer your question because things really haven't changed. I feel like I'm still 21. And I think the thing I'm proudest at is we had some visitors from out of town a week ago and my wife and the two girls walked up to Politics and Prose and, during the walk...
MARTIN: Politics and Prose is a local book store, for those who aren't familiar with the area.
ELLIOTT: The girl said, I can't believe Gerry's 80. I just turned 80 and, you know, that's nice. And so, in a sense, I feel the same as I've always felt and, again, you trace this back to health. You know, we've both, again, been fortunate. We don't have the bills for pharmaceuticals that most of the people our age have and so, so far, we've been lucky.
And I am proud of the fact that some of the kids - some of the children - when I say kids, I'm talking about people 50, 60 - some of the kids are the people who live here seem to enjoy being with us and, to me, that's very important.
MARTIN: Well, that's a good segue to the last question I had for this section, which is advice. Do you have some advice that you'd like to pass on?
ELLIOTT: The piece of advice I have is have a lot of interests because I wonder how I had time to do a job before I retired because, as my wife says, Gerry collects everything. Fortunately, she doesn't collect anything, so it evens out, but I'm serious about that. As many interests as possible will serve you well in your old age.
MARTIN: Okay. Reverend Nixon, what about you? What advice do you have?
NIXON: I think that I certainly would suggest to people: have younger friends. Because I find the fact that I have these folks who are in their - probably 50 and 60 years old and some maybe 70 - it means that I have younger people to come and take me out and that gives me a whole new lease on life that I wouldn't have if I didn't have them.
Also, my daughter now feels that she's now supposed to take me over and transform me into something different than I have been, so she...
MARTIN: A makeover?
NIXON: She's giving me a...
MARTIN: She's giving you a makeover?
NIXON: She's giving me a makeover right now. As I come out of my cocoon of being indoors for over a year. But I think young people around you means so much. You know, when I go to dances and things, they have taught me the new dances, so I can get out there and have a wonderful time, too.
Another thing that I feel would be...
MARTIN: So are you going to show us how to do the wobble?
NIXON: I don't think - they have to catch me up on that.
MARTIN: You don't know the wobble?
NIXON: I don't know about the wobble.
MARTIN: Just catch up on the wobble. Okay. We'll catch you up on that.
NIXON: I have to go call one of my daughters right away, the one who's teaching me how to dance, and say, what about the wobble?
MARTIN: All right. You ask her. You learn that. Okay.
NIXON: All right.
MARTIN: Okay. Krishna, what about you? A final thought from you. What's your advice?
ROY: Don't ever retire mentally. Keep your mind alive or your body may start to deteriorate. Maybe then go to the doctor. Most importantly, don't stop exercising every day. Everyone should exercise. So in short, my real advice to anyone that will listen to me is do not stop. Keep your interests alive. Do not get retired. There is no such thing as retirement, especially for the mind.
MARTIN: Krishna Roy is an economist. I was going to say retired economist, but she just told us don't retire. She is also the mother of two adult children and she stays active by swimming, knitting and walking up to nine miles a day.
Gerry Elliott is a retired congressional aide and a lifelong Packers fan - the only undefeated team, still, this season.
And the Reverend Rhoda Nixon is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church and a proud grandmother.
They were all kind enough to share their wisdom with us from their home in Washington, D.C. at Ingleside at Rock Creek. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
NIXON: Thank you.
ROY: Thank you.
ELLIOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.