How long will you work?

Choosing when to retire is an important decision. People often focus on finances—and for good reason; we want enough money to live comfortably. But that’s just one piece. We must also consider how employment affects our health and happiness.

For many people, jobs lend meaning, structure, and a sense of belonging. But work can also take time away from life-enhancing activities we look forward to in later years—like travel, hobbies, and spending time with grandkids.

What does research say about health and employment as we age? Much depends on your job, of course. For those who like their work, staying employed can be beneficial—especially if it keeps them active mentally, physically, and socially. Some studies show working can help you avoid health hazards that commonly emerge in retirement—problems like weight gain, too much alcohol, and depression.

Does that mean you should scrap plans to retire in your 60s or 70s? Not necessarily. But you don’t need to approach retirement as a hard stop either. You may, for example:

  • Narrow the scope of your job. Perhaps you can stay in the same field, but focus more on the work that you like best. A teacher, for example, might go from teaching several topics to just one or two favorites.
  • Switch from hands-on problem-solver to mentor/consultant. Many older people provide tremendous service as advisers, tutors, counselors, and board members. This allows them to leverage wisdom gained through decades of experience.
  • Do something completely new. You may want to take classes, start a business, or pursue some unexplored aspect of yourself. Artist? Swimmer? Caregiver? Spiritual seeker? How about the World’s Best Grandparent? The possibilities are endless.

And if you’d rather stop working altogether, that’s fine, too. But whatever path you take, don’t go into mental retirement and don’t become too sedentary, spending excessive time with your TV or computer. There’s great truth in the phrase, “Use it or lose it.” Keeping your mind and body actively engaged helps maintain your thinking skills. This requires far more than crossword puzzles! It means pursuing activities that give your life structure, challenge your mind, and keep you active. You may find your niche in volunteer work, hobbies, sports, religion, or whatever. Just make it rich and make it count.

I’m reminded of my longtime friend and father-in-law, Bob Zufall. He’s a physician who left a successful urology practice in his 60s to set up a free clinic that eventually served tens of thousands of disadvantaged people in his hometown of Dover, New Jersey.

I once asked him why he didn’t just kick back like so many retirees do. “Fortunately, I’m a lousy golfer,” he laughed. He also said retirement is the perfect time to ask, “What needs to be done that I can do and that I enjoy doing?”

I love this question because it points to one of the most important elements of healthy aging: Having a sense of purpose that keeps you engaged in the world mentally, physically, and socially. And what could be better than that?

Dr. Eric B. Larson is vice president for research and health care innovation at Kaiser Permanente Washington and author of Enlightened Aging: Building Resilience for a Long, Active Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

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