Five Lessons from Un-Retirement

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I have been fully retired from medicine for four and a half years, although I prefer the word ‘repurposed’ over retired since I found a new mission in life. But I feel like I am retired since I can do my new mission from anywhere in the world and on any time schedule.

My wife ‘retired’ from corporate accounting in 1993 when I moved from being a resident to an attending physician. She became a stay-at-home mom and did volunteer work. That meant when I repurposed in February of 2017, we were both free from all job obligations. After bowing out of all other obligations that would tie us down, we were free to travel the world. And we did just that, being gone more than 50% of the time.

Recently, the bookkeeper at our church needed to take an extended leave of absence. So my wife, who had been overseeing the finances at our church, as a volunteer, stepped up to fill her shoes while she was gone. That meant my wife was a working girl again, as an unpaid volunteer bookkeeper. 

Going back to having a job in the family gave me a contrasting look at what being retired has really meant for us. It’s a good example of “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” Following are five lessons I am learning from this un-retirement experience. 

1: Alarms are more painful than I remembered.

When you do not have a regular job, you do not need to set an alarm to wake up in the morning. It has been so nice to wake up when my body wants to instead of when I have to. If something happens to make me stay up late, I can just sleep in longer the next morning to make up for it. Not so if that is a work day.

The alarm has been used very infrequently the last four and a half years. I forgot how annoying that sound can be early in the morning. I have grown to appreciate waking when my body tells me it is time to get up. That is one of my favorite parts of being retired.

2: Travel restrictions are put in place.

I have especially loved the ability to come and go as we please. If the smoke gets bad in the valley from the nearby forest fires, we can hop in the motorhome and go someplace without smoke to enjoy the great outdoors. 

When we got the call that my father-in-law had taken a turn for the worse and was not expected to survive the night, we were able to pack a suitcase and be on the road in less than an hour. Although I did need to send an email to cancel a speaking appearance I was making the following weekend as we stayed to help with the funeral arrangements. 

Now that my wife has a job obligation, we can’t just pick up and leave. We can’t go to a mountain lake to get out of the heat for a week. We have taken on an obligation to be here to keep the finances at the church running smoothly. Those bills need to get paid, deposits need to be made, and the church employees enjoy getting their paychecks on time.

3: My wife comes home from work energized from being productive.

I delayed retiring until I had a productive project to keep me occupied to prevent the risk of sitting home bored. I realized I needed a purpose after leaving my busy practice. I see that need played out every day when my wife comes home from work and wants to talk about her day. Hearing the excitement in her voice tells me she is happy to be productive again. 

It is true that she has things to do at home which are productive. She helps edit my blogs and she keeps the books for our real estate business. But these things do not create the real sense of purpose for her that the bookkeeping job at the church does. 

With her job at the church, people are depending on her. It makes her feel like what she does really matters. At home if we don’t get a blog article out this week, it’s not that big a deal. (Although we have never missed one.) If she doesn’t do the books for the apartments until next month, it’s no big deal. But if people do not get their paycheck, lives are impacted. When people depend on our efforts it gives us a purpose. 

Don’t make a move into retirement until you find something to create purpose in your life. 

4: We lost some togetherness time.

One of the things I enjoy the most about being retired is that my wife and I are together all the time. For some couples, they view their apart time as a bonus, but I enjoy having her around all the time. I have been spoiled over the last few years.

Now there is part of the week when she is gone. It is OK as I have plenty of work to do. Currently, besides Financial Success MD keeping me productive, we are redecorating our house. As I write this, we are painting the entire interior in preparation for the arrival of our new carpeting. 

But it is just not the same as having her home with me all the time. We can’t just hop on our tandem bike and go for a ride. She must go to work and by the time she gets home, it is too hot to go for a ride. We now plan our days around her work schedule.

5: Projects are disrupted.

I mentioned we are redecorating the house. Part of that gets put on hold when she goes to work, even though we have a hard deadline to meet. The carpet will be arriving whether we get the painting done or not. So since we don’t want to spill paint on our new carpet, we must complete the painting before the new carpet arrives.

We have lost the ability to tackle a project and work on it until it is completed. We must pause while she goes to work. Yes, I can keep painting when she is gone, but it is a lot more fun doing it together. 

Before I was retired I didn’t realize how much my job influenced our life. I think my job just became the status quo. My family knew I would be at work and on call much of the week and we planned around it. After being retired from a “real” job for a few years, I have developed a new status quo, and I like the new way better.

Retirement has been an upgrade to my life style. I can clearly see the difference now that my wife is working. It has also been a reversal of roles. I’m now the stay home husband while my wife goes off to work. I can now get a glimpse of what it was like for her all those years as a stay home mom. Although I don’t have two kids at home with me, I do have my seven-month-old grandson for a few hours on some of the days my wife is at work. 

All in all, I like my retired life better. The freedom it gives is hard to express. It’s something one needs to experience first-hand to gain the full appreciation of the benefits. It is a lot like becoming debt free. I really can’t adequately explain what being debt free feels like to someone who is in debt. It’s just something you must experience yourself.

I’m not upset that my wife has returned to work for a couple of months. It’s fun to see her excited about helping out. It simply gave me a new appreciation of what it means to be financially independent and free. I love that my writings will help some of you reach that goal as well. Here is a glimpse of what our first four years of retirement has been like. Hope you all had a happy Labor Day Weekend.

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31 thoughts on “Five Lessons from Un-Retirement”

  1. Even Retirement will eventually end. Then what?
    That is why our most important need is to make sure we are ready for ETERNITY.
    There is only one instruction book that clearly gives us the steps.

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  2. I retired 4 years ago after 40 years in medicine, 30 in family medicine, 10 ER. While I never planned on “dying with my boots on,” I did expect to be able to send our kids to college and save for our retirement. Being an FP meant working all of the time and not getting paid for it. With 2 children in college, we never had enough to pay our bills and we even had to borrow from our children! Military and then rural emergency medicine was the answer. While the income from EM was excellent, the stress, the lack of sleep, irregular schedules and other factors made it a very unhealthy lifestyle, plus I was always working for someone else. The corporate practice emphasis is on making patients happy, seeing lots of them and ordering lots of tests. Practicing ethical, patient-centered, evidence-based medicine in such an environment is usually not possible. One hospital insisted that every patient with *any* kind of chest pain be “placed on observation.” I told that administrator that the decision to admit was the physician’s, not the administrator’s. Some physicians got around that policy by having the patient refuse admission by signing out AMA. Patients would file complaints when they didn’t get the medicines that they wanted. The income saved during my last 10 years made it possible for us to retire. Do I miss it? Perhaps a little. I still have dreams about being on call in the hospital and seeing emergency patients but they’re getting less frequent.

    The medical students of today don’t know what they’re getting into. Patients respect physicians but also blame them for the increasing costs of their health insurance. The solo practice of medicine is rapidly disappearing. Our personal physician is a great internist, but for him to practice solo and the way he wants, he had to join the MDVIP, concierge medicine network. That requires each of us paying $1650/yr, which isn’t covered by insurance. That our physician needed to do that is another indictment of the failures of our primary care system.

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  3. How much savings allow us to retire comfortably?
    I do not own a home, I am 56 y/o , single. Love my job. But concern about retirement years.

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  4. I recently retired after 38 years in practice as an Orthopedic surgeon.On that date I felt that a huge black cloud had been lifted from me.My stress level went down to Zero.I specialized in hip & knee replacements & got tremendous satisfaction in seeing how well my patients did.There were very few complications over the years & I always felt I I was on the cutting edge of surgery &the technology of joint replacements.However surgery required an enormous amount of concentration& decision making in the OR.Now I am relaxed all the time.I am out of academics completely,I spend my time swimming with my masters swim team where I have many friends, we meet up regularly. I also go to fracture conferences at my hospital although these are on hold now due to covid.I am registered with online courses for the USMLE’s & am relearning all the basic medical facts from my med school days,a lot has changed.I am happy to help my grown sons with handyman projects for their houses,orthopedists are good at this.Being a surgeon was very fulfilling,but so is retirement.Spending time with my swim team,friends, my wife,children & my grandchildren is my new life,I like it.

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    • Michael, I too am enjoying retirement, helping my kids with a remodel of a house and baby sitting our first grandchild. I like to think of the first half of my life was used to make a living and the second half will be used to make a difference. Congratulations on finding fulfilment in retirement.

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  5. I gradually shifted from full-time to part-time psychiatric practice before I retired. Loved it. I’d thought having reversed my work days and weekend (two-days work; five days off), I could just carry on as long as I could. Why quit completely as I enjoyed my work and my patients needed me?

    Then came the closure of our clinic because of financial constraint. It was sad. I could sign on with another practice company, but at my age, I decided to retire. Now, I fully enjoy my total freedom and free time. But I still keep up my writing and publishing activity and powerpoint presentations on psycho-spirituality which have kept me busy and makes my life meaningful and enjoyable. I increased my daily exercises. The pandemic has prevented our family’s traveling. But we’ve booked a cruise to Iceland next May, and hopefully, COVID will have subsided a bit (we’ve cancellation option).

    So, I fully agreed that we need to have a plan in place before retiring — something meaningful. What has given me most pleasure is a deepening search for spirituality, health promotion, and sharing combined medical and biblical knowledge (psycho-spirituality) to continue to benefit my church groups, friends, virtual national and international audience.

    Thanks for your message.

    Al Gaw, MD

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  6. A huge part of the medical training is a knowledge base of how to evaluate people and situations, collect appropriate information, and apply that to help other people. This is never lost, it simply a new paradigm for using the lifetime knowledge we have amassed.

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  7. Medicine was not my life’s dream. I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. I really wanted to be an astronaut but I wore glasses and had no depth perception. Are any of you old enough to remember what was going on in the aerospace industry in 1970? My goals changed.
    I was working as an engineer for a major international corporation when I was dared to go back to school.
    My boss convinced me to take leave of absence from my job in case I changed my mind.
    I took all of the required chemistry and biology in one year and six months (yes, I took inorganic and organic chemistry, quant and qual, biology, A+P, microbiology… my relax class was roller skating). And I volunteered at a hospital in the emergency department.
    Not much question that my residency would be in one of the first programs in emergency medicine.
    I looked forward to every day of my practice! I wouldn’t change any of my decisions to change hospitals (only twice).
    When a nurse asked my then 4 year old daughter if she was going to be a doctor like her mother, she answered “No, she works too much”.
    That was when I changed my priorities.
    I retired at 62. I have lectured, I volunteer, both in medicine and at our church.
    My alarm is set several mornings each week, but two mornings are for early tee times to play golf.
    We have no debt. We live in the house I bought shortly before I met my husband. We bought another house for my parents 34 years ago when they decided to live near us. Our younger daughter lives there now. We have a small “farm” 20 minutes away that we bought when we raised horses.
    I have watched other physicians practice long after they should have retired. I didn’t want to be one of them.
    My favorite pathologist retired the year before I did and my favorite surgeon retired the same year I did….he said I don’t know why I didn’t do this three years ago!
    If medicine is your life, and you have no other life, you have my prayers and sympathy.

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    • I agree with you 100% . Wanted always to be an engineer but shifted priorities due to personal reasons . No regrets but early retirement is in sight soon being now at 55 yrs of age . House/Farm/Hobby and enjoy life. No point in keeping working forever; if one plans it well, its doable.

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  8. Agree and my retirement is pretty much the same, but my wife has not gone back to work. For this to be successful however, I believe one has to find a “project” or outlet to become passionate about before leaving practice. It worked for us!!

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  9. If you like and value what you are doing until retirement, all the prices are worthy.
    But don’t wait until your patients wonder or even ask why you are not retiring or retired!

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  10. I don’t get it! Why go into medicine, if you are just going to “retire”? There are so many patients who are in need of your expertise and knowledge. I’m “old-school” and medicine, for me, was a calling, not a job from which one “retires” or “re-purposes”. Medicine should have been one’s only “purpose”. I hope you are fulfilled doing whatever you do. It’s a shame and a loss that all of your training in medicine for the good of others has been wasted. Good luck!

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    • Doc Thornton,

      Every physician will retire at some time. Some will do it on their own terms, some will be forced out because they stayed too long and can’t do it well anymore, and some will leave because they died. I chose to retire on my terms, when I was at the top of my game, and hadn’t lost my edge to my age. I chose to practice medicine for 23 years (not counting my nine years of training). Others might chose to practice for 30 years or even 40 years. We will all make a choice as to when our retirement day will come and we shouldn’t hold it against one another for picking a different date then we did.

      When I sat on the medical executive committee of the hospital, I was torn apart by having to consider removing physicians who had stayed beyond their expiration date. They felt a calling to be a physician and never wanted to give it up. But they were getting too old to safely take care of patients and we had to break that news to them. That was heart breaking. I never wanted to be on the wrong end of that discussion.

      As for medicine being a calling, it was always a calling for me, just as it was for you. It was what I always wanted to do with my life. I loved being a physician and I loved my patients. It was a great profession. I did not leave medicine easily. It took me four years from when I contemplated retiring to actually pull the trigger and retire. I worried that I would miss it and miss my patients. I also worried what people might think of me for giving up medicine before I died. Then I realized I should not choose my retirement date based on what others might think, I had to be done because of what I think.

      As for “purpose,” I’m so glad that medicine was not my only purpose in life. If it had been, I would have been totally lost when I did not practice medicine anymore. My wife would have missed me if she hadn’t been one of my purposes all those years. My kids would have grown up without me if I had put my calling ahead of them. They were one of my purposes. My church would have not had a worship leader if that was not one of my purposes.

      Medicine was the purpose that made me feel productive in life. When I left medicine, my new purpose to feel productive was to help other physicians live a better life with more fulfillment and less financial bondage. As a surgeon, I could only help a few dozen people a week. As an author, coach, and speaker, I am helping thousands of physicians every week.

      No, all of my training in medicine for the good of others was not wasted. I helped tens of thousands of people during my career regardless of their ability to pay. I established a free clinic for the homeless at the Gospel Rescue Mission. Spent time as the Chief of Surgery, President of the Medical Society, President of the Surgery Center Medical Staff, Board member on both the hospital foundation and the Independent Physicians Association, co-hosted a call in radio show on medicine, was chairman of the American College of Surgeons Committee on Applicants, Served as Chief of Trauma as well as serving for and helping many other organizations both in and out of medicine.

      I help more people now than I ever did in my office, the hospital and the surgery center. Physicians come to me because they can relate to me since I am one of them and was trained the same way they were. And for every one of those physicians that I help stay healthy and happy, I am helping all the patients they see because they didn’t burnout and their career was extended.

      I didn’t quit medicine, I simple changed who my patients were. Today I am healing the healers and it feels very good. Yes I am fulfilled doing what I do and thanks for your concern about my well-being.

      I wish you the best and hope your career in medicine is as fulfilling as mine was.

      Dr. Cory S. Fawcett

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    • I felt the same way you do – until the bean counters took over. I will NEVER tire of helping people, of being a part of improving another person’s quality of life.
      However, I am frustrated to the point of quitting because of the BURDENS placed on me by people and systems that no only don’t help, but actually make the process harder. If they were in place to ultimately provide better patient care, I’d just deal with it, but when I consider that the ONLY reason they exist is to make more money for some corporation, it ceases to be important to me. When you think of the role that Physicians have allowed themselves to be denigrated into – mindless drones whose real purpose is to provide a risk reservoir so that the corporations and their board members can get richer while patient care suffers, it becomes what it should never have been – just a job.

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    • Just get it.
      Yes, our profession is rewarding, but have you heard about physicians’ burnout affecting approximately 70 % of us? And what about the highest rate of suicides when compared to any other profession? Oh, by the way much higher rate of substance and alcohol abuse as well. And what about the rate of profession-related lawsuits – statistically one-third of us will be sued and may multiple times. Just get it.

      Reply

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