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My 5 Stages of Retirement

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love retired life

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Former AARP reporter and editor Katherine Skiba outside her home in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. She retired in April 2022 after a decades-long journalism career.
Lexey Swall

Here’s a dirty little secret: At age 67, I joined a garden club.

Not long ago, the idea of secluding myself in a church hall with a bunch of silver-haired dowagers who insist on proper botanical nomenclature (genus and species) would have been unthinkable.

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Not me. Not the hard-charging journalist who chased tough stories from tornadoes to triple murders to terror attacks.

Yet here I am, squirming in a folding chair as a lecturer drones on about how to grow unusual herbs for French culinary sauces I will never make.

How did I get here?

Two years ago, I retired. With a nudge from a neighbor, I joined the club to grow my skills as a floral designer. I had no interest in making a killer béarnaise, but I wanted to branch out, so to speak. (And shame on me, a bottle blond, for throwing shade on the club’s gray-heads.)

On April Fools’ Day, 2022 — no joke — I retired from AARP. My work as a writer and editor here focused on elder fraud, and I was gratified to help victims and alert others to this unconscionable scourge. I also wrote about Alzheimer’s research, centenarians and the catastrophic toll on older Americans of Northern California's Camp Fire, among other stories.

After four adrenalin-fueled decades of news reporting, my years at AARP were a cool-down phase. I was no longer on call 24/7. Even better, working for a nonprofit representing 38 million fellow older Americans proved a master class in retirement. I was in “pretirement” when I started, and I learned from the experts I interviewed and from those colleagues I spoke to for their stories about health, fitness, personal finance — you name it.

At a staff gathering six months into the job, I heard a talk on how to live to be 100. Among the speaker’s exhortations: Have a “playful, joyful retirement.”

Right afterward, I got a call from my oldest brother announcing that he was retiring. In light of our roll-up-your-sleeves upbringing, I was stunned. But I parroted the lecturer, wishing my sibling a playful, joyful retirement.

Thus, the seed was planted.

No poster child

Let me be clear that I am not an AARP-sanctioned poster child for retirement. No such person exists. AARP aims to empower people to choose how they live as they age. As we approach the off-ramp of our working years, our health, family and finances may be radically different from the next person’s. Everyone’s retirement is theirs alone.

I chose April 1 to call it quits for two reasons: I would never forget the date, and, mischievously, I wanted one last laugh as I bade farewell to the 9-to-5, the cubicle farm, the deadlines and the annual performance reviews (which, as a mature professional, I had come to loathe).

My finances seemed on solid footing. I had a modest newspaper pension and could rely on my husband’s paycheck. I would take a buzz saw to household spending, put off Social Security and not touch our nest egg.

When D-Day (Departure Day) rolled around, I laughed, cried, listened to tributes and gave what my colleagues called a funny speech. I was happier than an inmate being sprung from the big house. I would be out of the office — forever — and freed from the shackles of full-time toil. I’d worked since childhood, first at my family’s long-running restaurant outside Chicago and later in retail and for the U.S. Postal Service, among other places.

Ah, hubris. In the months to come I would learn that, much like other important endeavors — grieving, staying married, shaving my legs — there are stages to retirement. These were mine.

Stage 1: Euphoria

I had won the lottery. Every morning I could ignore the alarm my husband set and do whatever I wanted. My life seemed ripped from the script of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Freedom tasted sweeter than it looked on paper — and trust me, I had read a lot about retirement. The authors of Happy Retirement: The Psychology of Reinvention ask whether you regard retirement as a time to explore new horizons, put up your feet, search for meaning or contribute on your own terms. I was warm to R&R and new places.

With stress evaporating with each day, I got serious about a diet, ratcheted up my exercise regimen and shed 25 pounds. I was high on my hard-earned freedom and could fit into my old jeans. But honeymoons, history shows, don’t last forever.

Stage 2: Shock and awe

Timing is everything. Mine stunk. The stock market plunged in 2022 — as did my confidence — and the country was gripped by the worst inflation in 40 years. Who was the April fool now?

I retired at age 65½. The Social Security Administration’s life expectancy calculator says on average, a woman my age will live to 87. But my ancestors lived into their 90s, so I wanted a nest egg that was bulletproof.

I shifted some assets into higher-yield investments, eliminated frills, clipped coupons, hunted for bargains and harangued merchants for “senior citizen” discounts (the only time I use that term). Taxes were taking a bite out of my pension, which covered Medicare expenses but didn’t stretch far after that.

I lamented both the loss of my paycheck and the camaraderie of my “work family.” Then I remembered reading about people who “unretire” and go back to the proverbial rock pile after imagining they’d never pick up a sledgehammer again.

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As I had for years, I scoured job listings, but now each opening seemed tailor-made for the Energizer Bunny. I was growing accustomed to what the Italians call il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing.

Taking even a part-time job seemed as desirable as eating glass, so I doubled down on freelance writing.

Stage 3: The reality of gig work

Though the topics were engaging, churning out freelance stories felt like a deal with the devil. I could not shake my driven, perfectionist tendencies, so I put in too many hours from the solitary confinement of my home office. The state, federal and self-employment taxes whittling away at my measly earnings made me want to weep.

Even worse was the heckling of friends with a few years of retirement under their belts. “When are you going to really retire?” they’d sneer.

I thought I would ace retirement, but the economic downturn was raining buckets on my parade. I felt like a failure.

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Skiba's garden has been a major beneficiary of her retirement as she pursues a late-blooming passion for flower arranging.
Lexey Swall

Stage 4: Retirement 2.0

Once economic conditions brightened, I cut back on freelancing to give retirement a real chance — and get my friends to shut up.

That left me time to swim, refinish furniture, reupholster chairs, paint our fireplaces, entertain houseguests, bake, tame my garden and take my late-in-life passion for flower arranging to the next level. Some attempts to rekindle my softer side belly-flopped. True confession: The sewing machine I bought myself as a retirement gift is gathering dust.

When not immersed in DIY mania, I might luxuriate with a good book. I have learned to love naps. And I’m in the early stages of “Swedish death cleaning,” the art of decluttering your home to ease the burden on your loved ones after you’ve gone. I have chucked an abandoned book project and boxes of yellowed newspaper clips and story printouts. It’s a way to make room for new endeavors in my garage (rechristened “my studio”) and in my life.

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Stage 5: The bucket-list trip

I dislike the concept of a bucket list. Maybe because I don’t want to come off as gluttonous or tempt fate. Zip-lining, swimming with sharks, sticking my head into the mouth of a ravenous lion? No need.

I figured if I had one, and only one, thing I desired to do before the end, my odds of success would climb. My only wish was to visit all seven continents. Once I’d touched down in South America and Antarctica, I would step onto the winner’s podium.

So, when I eyeballed a bargain fare on a reputable cruise line for an excursion to Antarctica via Argentina, my husband and I went for it.

The endless oceans, majestic, snow-draped mountains and Windex-blue icebergs that mark this vast wilderness blew our minds. We breathed in the freshest air we’ve ever inhaled. We hiked, kayaked and heard lectures on the golden age of Antarctic exploration. We befriended the expedition guides (one a woman who had summited the highest peak on each continent) and dined with these raconteurs and other happy bucket listers aboard ship. Now this was retirement.

Of course I did the polar plunge. Why not? Hours of nerves and 30 seconds in 28-degree water equal a lifetime of bragging rights.

The trip taught me two things: Sometimes I need to let my heart be my compass. And for the rest of my days, I don’t need to see another penguin.

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Skiba and her husband, Tom Vanden Brook, off the coast of Antarctica in December 2023, fulfilling her sole bucket-list goal.
Katherine Skiba

Everybody has retirement advice

As I enter year three of retirement, I know that my fellow retirees are spoon-fed more advice than teens, college interns and expectant parents. Some of the one-size-fits-all counsel struck me as dumb.

You’ll be bored in three weeks.

You need to accomplish at least three things a day.

You should take up pickleball.

Let’s take them one by one.

Boredom. It’s preposterous to think any journalist worth their salt would find nothing to do, see, read, try or explore.

Three things a day. To me, that would be phoning it in. 

Pickleball. I’m game but haven’t gone there. Yet.

My advice? Dust off old passions and try new things. Follow the example of smart retirees you know. Brace yourself for requests that you work for free. Set boundaries. After a lifetime of being told what to do (and getting paid for it), remember that “No” is a complete sentence.

It’s your life. Your retirement. Your time. And time, sweet time, always goes by.

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