Traditionally, retirement was viewed as a period of rest due to old age and health concerns. Two decades ago in India, retirement typically happened at 58 or 60, with a life expectancy of 70. Today, retirement age ranges from 58 to 65, but increased life expectancy, reaching the 80s and 90s, shifts the perspective. The focus is primarily on financial preparedness for retirement. Our approach to retirement planning extends beyond finances, emphasising meaningful living. This article encourages individuals and families to contemplate the lifestyle they aim to uphold.
As social gerontologists, we acknowledge the importance of money but underscore the need for lifestyle adjustments in later years. With a bit of planning, this phase of life can be exciting and fulfilling. Lifestyle planning involves deciding how you want to age and securing the necessary resources and support. It also equips you for unforeseen events like disability, chronic illness, or evolving social needs. What will your retirement look like? Will you travel? Engage in volunteering? Go back to school? Or just work less and enjoy life more? Here are many scenarios to help you turn your vision into reality.

  • Roshan J Mundapallil, Sowmya Lakshmi

What it means to live well in retirement. When we conduct ‘Retirement Readiness’ Programs, we ask the participants this question. Everyone seems to think that it is money that matters in the sunset years. While many assume it’s primarily about money, a content retirement involves more than just financial security. It encompasses engaging leisure activities, creative pursuits, and overall mental and physical well-being.

When we conduct these pre-retirement workshops we came to know that most Indians are unprepared for retirement and the responses show that it no longer seems to elicit any emotional response. Retirement, often envisioned as a wonderful phase, can turn disappointing when not properly planned. Recent retirees we interviewed shared that life post-retirement was worse than during their working years. Approximately a quarter of retirees experience isolation and a loss of direction.

Nagarajaiah’s story serves as a poignant example. After retiring from a public sector bank, he envisioned exploring temples and mutts across Karnataka with his wife. However, two years into retirement, his plans were disrupted by his wife’s sudden cancer diagnosis. With no early symptoms, the duodenal cancer left no room for treatment or recovery. This unexpected turn of events became a harsh reality, highlighting the unforeseen challenges that can accompany retirement.

Nagarajaiah was anticipating support from his two brothers and four sisters during this challenging time but was confronted with the harsh reality of ‘lip service.’ Despite the expectation, no one stepped in when needed, and the eight-month battle he endured tragically concluded with the loss of his wife to cancer. From then on, he navigated a solitary journey until he met a young lady. However, the second marriage led to estrangement with all his siblings. After a tranquil period of eight years, misfortune struck again in the form of a stroke. Although he initially underwent a comprehensive treatment course, neglecting rehabilitation resulted in infections and subsequent hospital readmissions.

In the days leading to his demise, he admitted to a significant mistake in marrying a younger person for the second time and neglecting to plan for his retirement. Realising the truth came too late, as she proved to be solely interested in his assets and money. With his health and finances dwindling, his once-anticipated companion in his twilight years transformed into his nemesis. Nagarajaih emphasises, “Even couples who believe they are aligned in later years may not be. Each spouse is an individual, and they must pursue their own lives independently, considering that one will outlive the other. I outlived my beloved first wife, and I erred with this ‘one’ who never cared. Today, as I lie bedridden with maggots emerging from my bed sores, it is because of her. I regret.”

Strong family bonds and close social connections are crucial for promoting health and overall well-being in retirement. In Nagarajaiah’s case, complete isolation from family and friends led to a disastrous outcome. For many Indians today, family extends beyond blood relatives to include those they love and care for, whether friends or neighbours. Nagarajaih’s unfortunate oversight was not investing in ‘social capital,’ despite having ample finances. Instead, he placed trust in his young second wife, who ultimately failed him. Some people believe in miracles for retirement happiness, just as others engage in wishful thinking about retirement security, wanting it but taking no steps to achieve it — Nagarajaih exemplifies this approach.

In our retirement readiness sessions, we often liken retirement preparations to planning for an extended vacation. However, reality doesn’t always align with our plans. The effectiveness of the outcome is directly linked to the quality of the plan. Flexibility is crucial in handling unexpected circumstances, and having a backup plan (plan B) is equally important. Given the unpredictable nature of retirement, it’s hard to anticipate what it will truly be like until you experience it. This doesn’t mean, why planning?

Many individuals on the brink of retirement tend to defer thinking about it until a farewell celebration organised by colleagues forces them to confront it. We advocate for anticipate retirement days while still actively working. A gradual transition to retirement can be a valuable part of your overall plan, ensuring a smoother shift to your golden years.

Consider the case of a urologist client who, immersed in a busy practice, took only one week of vacation annually when his daughter visited from the US. His hectic schedule left no room for contemplating retirement. However, at the age of 72, a rapid deterioration due to Parkinson’s changed everything. His wife, once critical of his obsession to work at cost of family life, found herself as a devoted spousal caregiver, lamenting the lack of a life outside the home. The lesson here is to be proactive in carving out additional vacation time, recognising that family also needs your company. Those aged 55 and above should acknowledge the approaching final lap of their careers, not necessarily implying a complete halt but a shift to a more manageable pace. The uncertainties of later years highlight the importance of avoiding regrets, as seen in the experiences of Nagarajaih and the urologist.

In our pre-retirement life sessions, we emphasise the importance of building a robust social network, recognising its pivotal role in fostering happiness. The transition from the working world, which naturally provides regular social interactions, can lead to a loss of such connections in retirement. This absence of interaction may contribute to increased feelings of depression and pose risks to physical health. Scientifically, social well-being has been linked to lower levels of interleukin-6, an inflammatory response molecule associated with various age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s, high blood pressure, and other complications.

Consider the case of Ranjan Mathew, who retired from New Delhi after 32 years of service in the railway ministry. Although originally from Tiruvalla in Kerala, both his sons reside in Bangalore. Upon retirement, Ranjan and his wife, a retired nurse from AIIMS, deliberated on where to settle down. While Ms. Elsy desired to return to her native place, the God’s Own Country, where her aged parents and siblings lived, Ranjan prevailed, and they chose Bangalore for two compelling reasons: the salubrious weather and the proximity to their sons and grandchildren.

Ranjan serves as an exemplary illustration of how one can rebuild a social network in an unfamiliar place. He used his church membership as a starting point, gradually engaging in various church activities and swiftly becoming the cornerstone of the community. Factors such as health, available time, and enthusiasm all played in his favour. Whether you’re relocating or staying in your current area, the natural connections you have, often with work colleagues, may shift. Creating new friendships becomes essential for thriving in the next phase of life. As you retire, your former work associates will still be occupied, and evolving interests may lead to drifting apart. Building meaningful friendships takes time and conscious effort. In Ranjan’s case, he dedicated himself to cultivating a robust social network through his involvement in religious activities. Others might find such connections in social clubs, Rotary or Lions clubs, or civic organisations. While engaging in activities is vital, the most crucial aspect is regular interaction with others and staying socially active.

The happiest retirees we’ve encountered are those who harbour a strong sense of purpose, and the importance of setting realistic goals in retirement cannot be overstated. We don’t advocate for grand endeavours like starting a new business or climbing Everest; rather, simple goals such as reconnecting with friends, spending time with distant children, or acquiring a new skill can bring immense fulfilment. Sowmya emphasises, “Having a reason to get up in the morning and finding something to propel us forward is crucial.” In conclusion, retirees with a well-defined sense of purpose tend to be happier, healthier, and enjoy longer lives.

Your lifestyle matters a lot in the retired life. The budgeting for retirement depends heavily on the type of lifestyle you want to pursue. One of our neighbour who retired as a bureaucrat suddenly become ‘miser’. Earlier when he used for work the government, he was flamboyant and used to employ an army of servants including the drivers all at the expense of government. Sad, he become ill within two years into retirement. Both daughters settled in Australia, his family support dwindled in that front. As a loner, he never created ‘social support’ back up to counter his shrinking family support. He couldn’t continue the flamboyant lifestyle from the good old days of bureaucracy because he didn’t work out a transition.

Retirement lifestyles vary for everyone. To illustrate this, let’s introduce you to five couples.

Karunakaran and Devaki exemplify a modest retirement lifestyle with limited resources. Both are retired and do not have any active income streams. Their primary financial asset is the sale proceeds from their ancestral property near Sringeri, which serves as their nest egg. Opting for simplicity, they continue to use a scooter for transportation and have not considered owning a car, deeming it a luxury. A commendable aspect of their financial situation is that they are entirely debt-free. Their daily routine involves having dinner at home, and they engage in cost-effective activities such as gardening, knitting, and attending music events at the Sangeet Sabha. While they are aware that the nest egg from the property sale may not last indefinitely, they hold hope that their two sons will step in to support them if the need arises.

Chandrashekar and Vinutha lead a glamorous retirement. Retired from prestigious positions, they, like the first couple, lack pensions but rely on savings and income generated from a substantial mango farm they invested in during their working years. With a spacious house and two luxury cars, they’ve paid off their son’s education loan and are entirely debt-free. Their retirement is marked by a lavish lifestyle, dining at restaurants, indulging in golf at the KGA, and owning a second house near Maravanthae beach, which is Vinutha’s share from the family.

Mathew and Paula have transitioned into a semi-retired phase, passing the operational responsibilities of their enterprises to their children. Although they no longer engage in day-to-day management, both continue to spend half of their day at the office, maintaining a passive connection to their pickle businesses. Despite not needing the income for a comfortable life—thanks to their savings—they find joy and purpose in working. Remaining idle leads to feelings of boredom and depression. Mathew channels his energy into reading old novels, while Paula dedicates her time volunteering to the spastic society. Their company generates additional income, enhancing their ability to indulge in overseas vacations. Accumulating more savings than they require, they allocate a portion to charitable endeavours through the Rotary club.

Karthikeyan and Rukumani were in the Middle East for almost four decades. Both retired from the Middle East, with Karthikeyan having worked at the Kuwait Oil Company in the senior management and Rukumani as a school librarian. During their Middle East tenure, they strategically established streams of passive income through investments in commercial properties in Bangalore. In their retirement, rental properties, royalties, dividends, and interest income collectively provide a comfortable lifestyle. Recently they took over the management of a rural school where they improved the infrastructure and now they spend more time improving the school.

By trying to help his Son in law financially, Cherian did a blunder went into debt. Cherian, a highly successful individual in his corporate career, had a dual identity as a well-known musician in the city’s social circles. His wife, Mercy, dedicated herself to homemaking. Despite initial objections from Mercy, Cherian permitted their daughter and son-in-law to reside in their house. The son-in-law, aspiring to launch a garment export business, convinced Cherian to secure a bank loan by using their upscale property in Indiranagar as collateral. Unfortunately, this decision led to Cherian’s downfall as the son-in-law faced significant business losses, resulting in the loss of their house to the bank. Cherian, who had hoped to guide his son-in-law based on his business experience, discovered the stark difference between owning a business and working in a corporate setting. Presently, life is exceptionally challenging for all involved.

The stories above illustrate that there is no fixed rule to define the ideal form of retirement. The concept of an ideal retirement varies for each individual, influenced by various factors. Contentment for some lies in leading simple and peaceful lives, while others seek joy in globe-trotting, indulging in expensive hobbies, savouring fine wines, upgrading their homes, and exploring new activities. For some, financial constraints necessitate continued employment, while others opt to work for the sheer pleasure and satisfaction it brings, even when income is not a pressing need.

Conventional retirement advice from financial planners often suggests a formula: Save 10% to 15% of your current income if you’re not a pensioner. However, this one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t consider the diverse lifestyles and aspirations individuals may have. Take, for instance, Karunakaran and his wife, who find contentment in simple living—cooking their meals, maintaining their home, and cherishing time with family.

On the flip side, couples like Vinatha and Chandrashekar seek the thrill of sailing to Italy, playing golf, taking art lessons, and vacationing in a beachside house. If you aspire to a lifestyle like theirs, budgeting more than 15% towards retirement might be necessary. In the situations of Mathew and Paula or Karthikeyan and Rukumani, where earning continues in retirement, reliance on retirement savings may not be as critical. These couples have established passive income streams, ensuring financial stability.

In contrast, Cherian’s story serves as a cautionary tale. His unfortunate situation involved substantial losses and asset forfeiture by cosigning a bank guarantee for his daughter. Many retirees make such mistakes, and we’ll explore another story to advise against such risks and pitfalls in retirement planning.

Individuals preparing for retirement, as shared in our retirement readiness sessions, emphasize that money plays a crucial role in ensuring security, independence, maintaining lifestyle, and preserving health during retirement. Surprisingly, more than a third of these participants find managing money in retirement even more perplexing than saving for it. A significant financial concern among retirees is the anticipated expenses for health care and long-term care in later years. Approximately one-fourth of retirees claim to have budgeted for these costs, while two-thirds of pre-retirees admit uncertainty about the potential expenses, expecting them to be quite high.

The necessary funds for your retirement depend on various factors, such as any outstanding mortgage, your children’s education, your health condition, life expectancy, insurance needs, lifestyle choices, and considerations for long-term care. Here are few retirement tips that can help you have a really good retirement. Make this the best time of your life!
Befriend Your Future Self
Envision Your Future
Conquer the Fear of Using Your Nest Egg
Cultivate a Sense of Purpose and Meaning
Prioritise Health Over Wealth
Find Fulfilment Through Volunteering
Focus on Generating Income, Not Just Investments
Explore Ideal Retirement Destinations and Relocate
Transform Your Travel Aspirations into Reality
Embrace a Positive Perspective on Aging
Ensure Your Retirement Planning Encompasses Your Spouse and Loved Ones
Guard Against Fraudulent Schemes
Thoughtfully Utilise Your Savings
Foster Social Connections
Engage with People Beyond Your Age Group
Consider Getting a Canine Companion
Don’t Overlook Long-Term Care Planning
Prepare for Unforeseen Challenges
Embark on Remarkable Adventures – It’s Never Too Late
Release Concerns about Your Adult Children
Declutter and Simplify Your Life
Develop habits and practices that breed happiness