Will You Have a Healthy Retirement?

Happier, more optimistic people tend to be healthier and live longer. Do what makes you happy. And don’t postpone things (like dream trips) indefinitely, on the assumption that you can always take them later.

The greatest wealth is health.  ~Virgil

In an earlier article (See, Is There Life After Retiring from the Federal Goverment?), I noted (okay, bragged about) the fact that I had not been sick as much as a full day since I had taken early retirement.  Turns out I should have knocked on wood — i.e., my skull.  The 10th anniversary of my retirement was March 31, and the very next morning, on April Fools’ Day, the joke was on me; I had just started turning left with a green arrow when an SUV ran the red light and smashed into our 15-year-old, mint-condition Lexus Sports Coupe, instantly turning it into a twisted pile of metal.  Thanks to my seat belt, my only obvious injury was a bruise on my head from smacking it against the driver’s side window.

The next day, though, I awakened with a headache and a stiff neck.  Soon other things started to go wrong, such as a remarkably painful toothache from an irritated nerve on the side of my face that hit the window.  That was quickly followed by a cold and/or flu and a sinus infection.  Since the accident I’ve seen our family physician twice, as well as a dentist and an endodontist (the latter resolved my facial pain by performing a root canal); taken enough prescription pain-killers to render an elephant comatose as well as three different antibiotics; and had a brain scan — as family and friends expected, the results were negative — to help determine if I suffered a closed-head injury.    

I was planning to write about health issues in this article anyway; but I had intended to illustrate via the experiences of friends how quickly and dramatically one’s health status can change. My point was going to be — and still is — that maintaining good health is extremely important to an enjoyable retirement; I just didn’t know I was also going to be using my own health as an example of unexpected changes. 

Our friend Brad was driving home from a cribbage tournament one night a few years ago when a boulder apparently fell from the back of a truck on the other side of the highway and bounced into, and through, Brad’s windshield, knocking him unconscious and breaking virtually every bone in his face and head.  The emergency medical technicians thought they had lost him several times on the ambulance ride to the hospital.  Brad lived, through sheer force of will (his and that of his wife Carol, who was a registered nurse), but he lost one eye, and about 95% of the vision in his other eye, and had to undergo a huge number of operations, including major plastic surgery to rebuild his face. 

Brad had been part owner of a successful accounting firm, and had just recently taken out disability insurance, so at least finances were not an issue. Somehow, Brad managed to maintain his great sense of humor throughout his ordeal, but despite the couple’s extraordinary courage and perseverance, the freak accident changed both of their lives forever, with Carol having long since quit her job to care for him.

Another friend, Gary, who had retired from the Federal government, suffered a major stroke in January of 2006.  Fortunately, he was actually at a Kaiser Health facility for a check-up when it happened, and was quickly taken to the hospital by ambulance.  Since his stroke, Gary has had to re-learn to talk and has been through countless physical and vocational therapy sessions.  Like Brad, Gary is mentally as tough as nails, and is doing better all the time, but the stroke has had a huge impact on his life and that of his wife, Pam, who immediately became, and has remained, his primary care-giver while still working full-time.

We have other friends, neighbors and associates who are dealing with major illnesses such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.  All of these situations have certainly made us even more grateful than usual for our good health as well as cognizant of the fact that disaster can strike at any moment, even when people are in great shape, as was the case for both Brad and Gary. They have also caused us to reflect on the wisdom of the Tim McGraw hit song, “Live like you were dying.” 
Conceding that we don’t know what fate has in store for us, I do think that there is much we can do to keep ourselves healthy. That would include undergoing regular physical examinations, particularly as we get older, and completing whatever tests our doctors recommend. I believe women are generally much better than men about obtaining needed medical care, and are often the principal reason that men finally seek treatment. 

Some of us have special health needs; being of Northern European extraction I have extremely light skin and was foolish enough to get severely sunburned a number of times growing up, so my dermatologist quite frequently cuts or freezes pre-cancerous growths off my face and head.  I’m starting to remind myself of Peter Boyle in “Young Frankenstein.” 

Most Federal employees are able to carry their group health insurance plan into retirement; while our share of health care costs continues to rise, I feel very fortunate compared to the millions of Americans who have no health insurance or sky-high deductibles and co-pays. And Federal employees and retirees finally have the ability to purchase supplemental dental and vision insurance through the government, although I’m hoping we’ll be able to get more coverage for less money in the future. 

A recent study cited on MSNBC.com found that “Americans over the age of 55 are filing for bankruptcy at a faster rate than the general population as growing mortgage debt and higher health care costs make them more vulnerable.” The latter comes as no surprise to us; after 37 years with one health insurance provider, we may make a change during the next open season in an effort to better protect ourselves financially.

Meanwhile, we have learned the hard way how costly dental care can be.  Penny-wise and pound-foolish, I convinced my wife, Lynda, to delay her “every six months” dental check-up routine until the new dental insurance plan kicked in, despite the fact that she had a tooth that was clearly going bad under a crown.  By the time she did go to the dentist, the tooth had disintegrated to the point that there was not enough left to salvage, and the decay had spread to the adjoining tooth. So, my poorly-reasoned effort to save us a few hundred dollars in 2006 has already cost us thousands of dollars in 2007. More importantly, it has caused my wife considerable unnecessary pain, since it will take at least eight visits to dentists, periodontists and implantology specialists before her problem is resolved. I should probably be sleeping with one eye open.     

After reviewing various Internet sites that my wife pointed me toward, I’ve become convinced that oral health is extremely important to overall physical well-being, so I’ll just have to force myself to adopt her twice-yearly dental appointment regimen.

Everything I have read about maintaining good health emphasizes the value of regular exercise, which has been a lot easier for me than the medical visits part of the equation. As I accumulate additional aches and pains, however, I find that my eagerness to get up at the crack of dawn and over to the YMCA sometimes flags. When that happens I think about those folks who are 10, 20 or more years older than I but still show up at the “Y” on a regular basis and appear to be in excellent health. 

I think there is also much to be said for the idea of moderation in all things, particularly eating (advice from someone who for years has eaten half a giant Hershey’s Special bar every day) and drinking, and in avoiding or giving up smoking. My dad died of emphysema after smoking cigarettes for 40 years (and despite giving them up completely 20 years earlier), and might still be with us if he hadn’t picked up the habit, with plenty of support from the U.S. Army during World War II.

Finally, there are many websites, books and magazine articles dedicated to the proposition that your attitude affects your physical health and well-being, and that the happier you are the longer you are likely to live.  According to Thomas R. Blakeslee, author of The Attitude Factor, a Dr. Grossarth-Maticek gave a brief test measuring habitual feelings of pleasure and well-being to thousands of elderly residents of Heidelberg, Germany, in 1973. “Twenty-one years later, he compared the test scores with health status. The results were amazing: the 300 people who had scored highest turned out to be thirty times more likely to be alive and well 21 years later than the 200 lowest!”

In my experience, the happier, more optimistic people in my life have tended to be healthier and live longer.  So, my best advice is:  Do what makes you happy.  And don’t postpone things (like dream trips) indefinitely, on the assumption that you can always take them later. We’ve known a number of people who put off doing things they would really have enjoyed, such as traveling, only to have those plans disrupted, sometimes permanently, when their health suddenly deteriorated. Be realistic:  Adventure travel, such as a photo safari to Africa, is probably more feasible for most of us in our 50s and 60s than our 70s and 80s, although there are always exceptions.      

The lesson we learned was that one can almost always make more money, if necessary, but no one is guaranteed a specific amount of time or good health, so we do the things we want to do while we are still physically and mentally capable of getting maximum enjoyment from them. The memories of our many great trips clearly outweigh the costs, and we’re sure our daughter will forgive us if we spend a fair amount of her inheritance.   

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.