A Surgeon’s Thoughts on Turning 61

This month I celebrate my 61st birthday. This birthday marks the first time I really considered the concept of my time on earth running low. Exactly how much time do I have left to do all the things I still have on my bucket list? Will I see my grandsons graduate from college? Will I be at their weddings? How much longer can I play the piano and sing with the quality I now have? Do I have enough time to write all the books I have floating around in my head? Have I done enough to make my life matter? What should I now be focused on?

Recently three of my classmates from high school passed away. At one of their memorial services I ran into several classmates from high school who I had not seen for many years. Some of them now look old and I struggled with the realization that I am their age. Then I ran into a colleague from my working days and he has aged considerably. He had visibly moved into “old-age” and I began to wonder about myself. I’m experiencing aches and pains more frequently. More things I used to do with ease are now becoming difficult. My exercise routine is different than a decade ago. Yet I am in great shape for my age.

As I began to analyze where my body is in the aging process, I took a look at my actuarial chart. Just how long on average am I expected to live? In practical terms, I discovered I have about a 50:50 chance of seeing both my grandsons graduate from college. I began a deep reflection of where I have been, where I am, and where I am going.

I have had a great life

The first thing that came to mind was that if I die tomorrow, I have had a great life. I grew up in a caring family, I have been married 34 years to a marvelous wife, and have two great adult kids. I have traveled to many countries and experienced many adventures. When I encounter social media quizzes asking how many life adventures on their list have you done, I can usually check off more than 90% of the items. I spent 32 years learning and practicing medicine which has helped tens of thousands of people. 

Throughout my life I have taken time off work each year to enjoy life; I haven’t saved my adventures until after I retire. Now that I have been retired for six years, I’ve done some of the more time consuming adventures on my list, such as back-packing across Spain, and feel very content with having satisfied my travel bug. I still intend to travel, but not nearly as much as I have in the recent past. I am also content in knowing where I will be going as a follower of Jesus.

Priorities change

What I thought I wanted to do with my life has evolved since I retired, and especially since my first grandson was born. I no longer feel the pull to visit every continent or do every type of adventure before I’m gone. I have explored enough castles and cathedrals.

My priority now is more focused on my family. Spending time with my kids and grandkids. Helping my and my wife’s parents navigate their remaining years. I have learned that live shows, beautiful scenery and great weather are not nearly as important to me as interacting with people and having a purpose in life. 

I love having the ability to watch my grandkids. Since we only live 15 minutes away, we can often watch them on a moment’s notice. I remember how much fun I had spending the night at my grandparent’s house. I want my grandsons to have the same experience. I grew up being able to ride my bicycle to visit both sets of grandparents and my great-grandmother. I’m glad they were never off on a six-month cruise when I wanted to visit.

Traveling is similar to working long hours

On my recent travels I came to the conclusion that being away from my family because I am in Europe for a month has the same effect as working every day and spending many nights on call. Both activities keep me from my family.

People speak of wanting to retire because “work keeps them from their family.” Then when they retire they either move far away to better weather/lower cost of living, or travel extensively. I didn’t move, but I sure have been traveling a lot. If I kept my travel schedule the way it was when I first retired, I would miss my grandkids growing up, like what happened often with my kids when I was working as a surgeon. I don’t want to repeat that missed opportunity by substituting travel for work and still not seeing the kids and grandkids.

I’m not saying I will not be traveling anymore, I do still love to travel. I just don’t want the travel to take away from the personal relationships back home. I suspect my trips will be shorter and timed to take into consideration what is happening back home.

Young-old vs. old-old

I have been reading a lot about dealing with aging parents to help me deal with my parents and to understand what my kids will go through dealing with me as I age. I have now come to understand that there are two kinds of old. 

The young-old, which I am now, are the older members of the community who still have good health and are physically vigorous. Most new retirees fit into this group. Yes, there are things we can’t do like we did when we were twenty, but with a few modifications we can still do a lot of activities. That concept of modification is what drove my purchase of an electric bike. In my older years, I can keep up with the younger riders if I have a little boost from a motor on the bike.  In fact, my rejuvenated biking lead me to commit to race on a team in a 24 hour mountain bike race this summer. I haven’t raced bicycles for a decade. Hopefully my kids will join the team so we can enjoy this experience together. I can still do stuff like that in my young-old years.

Then there is the old-old. These are the people who are now having various difficulties and need the help of others. They are beyond modifying things a little and have moved on to some form of dependency. Both of my grandmothers and my father-in-law went through this phase during the last couple of years of their lives. By this age, traveling the world is off the table. These are not the happiest years of retirement. 

I would like to get as much out of my life and relationships with others during my young-old years before I enter the old-old phase of life. 

I don’t want to use up the young-old years traveling the world and miss using that era for building relationships and leaving a legacy. A balance must be found.

How will you live your retirement years?

Start thinking ahead to what your retirement years will look like. What is the effect of taking back to back six month round the world cruises? How many young-old years will you have? Do you really want to live 1,000 miles away from your grandkids? How will the grandchildren react to you if they only see you on Thanksgiving? Cuddling up with my grandson to watch a movie is a very soothing and rewarding activity for me that only happens because he sees me frequently.

Retirement should be a time of great joy, now that you don’t have to go to a job 40-80 hours a week. The ability to spend more time with your family is a part of that joy. Think about your vision of the perfect week during your young-old years. How much of the week is spent laying on the beach, walking through 600 year old cathedrals, cuddling with grandkids, having conversations with your adult kids, or working in your yard?

If you can picture what brings joy into your life, you can make it happen in your retirement. Don’t let any of the things you love to do, push out all the people you love. With a little planning you can have both during a long and rewarding retirement. 

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8 thoughts on “A Surgeon’s Thoughts on Turning 61”

  1. I’m turning 61 this week. I found (and loved!!) your post simply by searching “on turning 61″….because I was curious — am I the only one thinking about the time we have left and how to best spend it?

    We all spend, or have spent, so much time being away from our home hub — whether it’s work or travel. The hub to me is my small family and my senior dog. I love home. I no longer desire to be out in search of the wonders of the world when home/family/pets bring me joy.

    I find myself being so attached to small things that make me smile, I don’t want to miss a minute of it. Laughing ’til I cry with my daughter, who fortunately lives 10 minutes away. Taking a walk with my dog who, in human years, is 30 years older than me (but runs faster!).
    I have learned how to ignore anything or anyone who brings feeling of negativity into my life. I want to read books (with large font!), enjoy the change of seasons, make good food, and do all things that are uncomplicated.
    I’m reasonably healthy. I take one prescription for high BP – and have for the past 15 years. I walk daily. I know how to relax (learned that later in life). My left knee (3 surgeries – avoiding 1 more) reminds me I’m not 25. Nor would I want to be.
    Lately, I get weepy when I read about people I know, or people I don’t, pass away at my age. Whether it’s an acquaintance/friend from years gone by, or a journalist or actor I enjoy, it makes me realize how fleeting life is.

    Doing my best to just enjoy every minute of it –including my gray hair.

  2. Happy Birthday, Dr. Cory! I always enjoy reading your blog and come away learning something new or looking at thing through a different perspective. Your the best and your family is really fortunate to have you. Here’s to many more years of good healthy and memory making.

  3. I am 52 and contemplating these very issues. I also am in good health but starting to have little tweaks with aches and pains. Working out has a whole new goal now. Fortunately we have great relationships with our 17 and 19 year old daughters. Thank you for your wisdom and insight.


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