My personal evolution to embrace retirement
Moving forward, I have a mantra: 'It is now our time'
FOR THOSE OF US who have had a career that we enjoyed, “retirement” gives us pause. The questions I have been asking myself are:
- Am I ready to shed my professional identity as a physician?
- Do I want to be on vacation perennially? Will I be bored?
- Can retirement be as fulfilling as my professional career?
- What now is my purpose in life?
- Am I financially able to retire?
- How will I maintain and expand my circle of friends?
The vast majority of my career was spent running a solo private (endocrine/internal medicine) practice (DiabetesEndocrine.com) and a small software company (ComChart.com), both now shuttered, two synergistic endeavors which were personally fulfilling.
In 2017, it became apparent that my 2.5-decade-old medical practice was not sustainable in the era of corporate medicine and I had to become an “employed” physician. Unfortunately, corporate medicine also made it impossible for me to efficiently take care of my patients while simultaneously amplifying the stress of an inherently stressful occupation.
As the medical knowledge base doubles every several months, it is to be expected that one’s depth of medical knowledge decreases with time. To compensate for this, about 1-2 decades after I finished my training, I began to restrict my practice to only those diseases for which I felt my clinical skills were up to date. Now, 3.5 decades into my career, the repertoire of diseases I treat has narrowed significantly.
In recognition that my clinical skills had diminished, corporate medicine had negatively impacted my ability to provide care, and the stress was untenable, I decided to wind down my beloved clinical career so as to allow a more contemporarily trained endocrinologist, who would be more adept at providing medical care within the constraints of the current healthcare system, take my place.
In the spring of 2022, my employer agreed to allow me to work part-time, effective October 2022, and they began looking for an endocrinologist to replace me.
In May 2022, I posted my article “Approaching Retirement.”
In July 2022, I was hiking in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. We hiked up a river valley to a mountain pass. At peak elevation, I turned around to see the river below, its banks speckled with verdant patches of grass and flowers in all the hues of the rainbow, with a 30-mile vista of granite mountains encased in glaciers and snow fields, all under a crystal-clear blue sky. The scenic grandeur was overwhelming and there was a complete absence of the “stress” which had so degraded my soul on a daily basis.
In that instant, I had a moment of “cognitive clarity” when it became obvious that I needed to retire from the career I loved. I turned to the person next to me and said, “I am going to quit my job.”
When I returned to my one-person tent, I dictated a resignation letter to my employer.
In August 2022, I posted my “Retirement Letter to My Patients.”
I have spent my entire life subjugating my personal needs to the needs of my family and patients. While I have some regrets, it has been a wonderful journey.
Moving forward I have decided that my retirement mantra will be “It is now our time” and by “our” I mean my wife, Gail, and I.
My kids have already said, “You now have so much free time, can you do XYZ for me.” My response was “I have helped set you up for life and you are doing amazingly well. Henceforth I’m only going to do the things that I (we) want to do. You are welcome to ask me for help, but don’t expect that I will automatically say ‘yes.’ It is now our time.”
As I now work part-time, I have already begun to attend more art events, theatrical productions, musical events, and lay scientific lectures. Fortunately, the Boston area has a surfeit of cultural and educational opportunities.
And there is so much to learn about our world.
I recently applied to the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement and am now on their waitlist. I am not unfamiliar with academic rejection. When I first applied to medical school, I was initially put on two waitlists and ultimately rejected, twice. Those rejections turn out to be the most advantageous event in my entire academic career as I met my wife, Gail, when I was a graduate student at MIT. Thus I am sure I will be OK, even if I am ultimately rejected by the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement.
Having found great intellectual joy and personal satisfaction in the interface between medicine and technology, I hope I am asked to provide medical/technical advice for tech-health start-ups like I am doing for Healthful Data. I have a wealth of experience and my opinion is free.
And, of course, I have created a “Retirement Activities To-Do list,” which I update almost daily.
Like many others, I worry that I will not find enough to keep me intellectually engaged and physically busy. Hopefully, some of my plans will prove those concerns to be unfounded. And I intend to keep an open mind to any opportunities that present themselves.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that the most important factor contributing to one’s long-term happiness is having many meaningful friendships. Hopefully, my attendance at the aforementioned activities will be a source of new friends, and maybe I will try to create a “retired men’s weekly brunch” club at a local coffee shop.So, I begin retirement with a plan and a mantra: It is now our time.
Hayward Zwerling is a resident of Somerville.