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Scouting Out Retirement? The Old Motto Holds: Be Prepared




Retirement planning is about gathering information on ways to spend the rest of your life, and then acting upon it.

Getting a jump-start on planning - at least a year before the big day - can help head off theboredom and the loss of identity and self-worth that can sour the retirement years, according to experts.

While financial planning usually takes center stage in retirement preparations, a myriad of other issues can also play a role in making or breaking the post-working life. By taking the time to research and investigate everything from their social to their housing options, the ready-to-retire crowd can ensure an intellectually, socially and psychologically satisfying retirement.

"The common mistake people make in preparing for retirement is that they do a pretty good job of preparing for it financially, but they leave out the psychological part of it," said Peter Kanaris, a Smithtown psychologist with a specialty in geriatrics and coordinator of public education for the New York State Psychological Association.

Ideally, prospective retirees should start thinking about how they want to spend their retirement as soon as they decide when they are going to throw in the towel. Depending on how long they've been with their employer, they should let their bosses know their plans no less than a year before they call it quits to give themselves enough time to find and train a successor as well as to complete major projects.

They also should also use the pre-retirement period to lay the groundwork for their retirement days and how they would like to live them.

'A soft landing'

"You want to create a soft landing, and it's difficult to get the momentum and motivation after retirement," said Ron Manheimer, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement in Asheville. "Avid golf players think that every day will be like the weekend. But then they develop back problems, so don't put all your eggs in one basket."

Getting your feet wet

At the outset, Manheimer suggests engaging in "field-testing," which involves participating in activities that can help you decide whether you should turn a hobby into a business or segue into a second career that uses the skills you've developed in your first.

"If you're in IT and now want to be a high school math teacher, be a teacher's aide," because you may find out that the position is "classroom management, not teaching," says Manheimer.

Along the same lines, experts suggest enrolling in academic programs that not only lead to professional certification but also can give you an idea about the field's competitiveness and hours, and whether you're up for them. In some cases, as part of its employee benefits, a firm will pick up the tuition tab, said Sandra Timmermann, director of Connecticut-based MetLife Mature Market Institute.

For near-retirees who enjoy their jobs but want to work less, the consulting route can provide flexible hours and part-time work. Joseph Scalice, a principal in Retireeworkforce.com, a Web site that posts job opportunities for retirees, said about six months before retiring, prospective retirees should tell employers they're available for consulting stints, and spread the word among industry colleagues at trade shows and other business gatherings.

If you don't have the foggiest notion of what shape you'd like your retirement to take, Ronda Beaman, a life coach and the author of "You're Only Young Twice," prescribes writing down your experiences, contributions, skills and achievements, as well as asking other people how they would describe you and what they think you should be doing. The questions can point you in a direction you hadn't considered. It's also helpful to speak with people involved in ventures that pique your interest and hear about the pros and cons of their experiences.

An active social life

The key to a meaningful retirement is "keeping the gray matter active and incorporating other people in your life," said Marion Somers, a Brooklyn-based elder care expert, known professionally as Doctor Marion, and the author of "Elder Care Made Easier: Doctor Marion's 10 Steps to Help You Care for an Aging Loved One." "You need to program a social life into your life. You can't depend on children."

To that end, prospective retirees should begin looking into volunteer or educational activities that give them the opportunity to form friendships with people who share their interests and passions. Experts recommend joining a gym, enrolling in a ballroom dance class. Another idea is taking a foreign language course and then traveling on a group tour to a place where that language is spoken. Or getting involved in communal or charitable organizations, be they religious, political, environmental or social service clubs.

"Get involved and stay involved," said Kanaris. "Friendships happen through repeated exposure and over time, and it becomes easier if you are not desperate."

A test before you move

Beyond participating in purposeful projects, think about whether you want to remain in your existing home, downsize to a smaller place, relocate to a warmer climate or move near your children. Housing should also be evaluated for its proximity to shopping and public transportation.

Mark and Nancy Mills, the co-authors of "Boomers! Funding Your Future in an Age of Uncertainty," recommend taking extended vacations to an area that has retirement potential and visiting it at different times of the year, including peak and off-peak seasons, to see whether it truly appeals to you. In addition, keep in mind that a move could necessitate leaving behind long-time friends, as well as finding new doctors, a dentist and even a new handyman, said the couple.

Elinor Ginzler, AARP's director of livable communities, said seniors shouldn't make snap moving decisions. "You don't want to quit your job on Monday, pack your house on Tuesday and move to a new house on Wednesday," she said. "That would be a lot of changes all at once."

If you're definitely planning to remain in your home, though, consider improvements that will allow you to age in place safely and comfortably. According to Ginzler, a new gourmet kitchen, for example, shouldn't just have granite counters but different levels of counters - "not only for a wheelchair but so a grandchild can cook with you, and when you're tired, you can sit down and chop."

Keep in mind, too, that retirement planning isn't just about realizing your wants. It's also about considering your spouse or partner's interests, and how they envision their lives.

And since the best-laid plans can go awry because of unanticipated health problems, make sure you have adequate health insurance coverage. According to Cheryl Matheis, AARP's director of health strategy, near-retirees should contact Social Security and Medicare at least three months before retiring to find out about benefits.

"If they're working for a big employer that has an HR department, it will navigate them through this," said Matheis. Depending on the company's size, it may offer retirement health benefits.

Approaching retirement is a good time to think about buying insurance for long-term care in a nursing or assisted-living facility. The earlier it's purchased, the cheaper, according to experts. Between the ages of 50 and 55, a decent policy can run $3,000 a year, compared to $5,000 a year for a 65-year-old, according to Matheis.

"Someone is going to decide how you are going to spend the rest of your life," Matheis said. "It might as well be you."

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