In the course of a lifetime, people pick up the knowledge and skills to build careers and raise families. But not much of that prepares them for life in retirement. How do you manage your time? How do you keep your mind sharp? How do you adjust to all the spousal togetherness? They sound like seminar subjects -- and they are.
Just as people take classes to prepare for other major life changes, whether it's job advancement or first-time parenthood, prospective retirees are studying for their next act. This type of planning goes beyond the workshops that employers and financial-services firms offer to teach you how not to go broke after you stop working. Courses such as a 2 1/2-day workshop at the National Center for Creative Retirement at the University of North Carolina in Asheville (www.unca.edu/ncccr) focus on mindset and lifestyle, not 401(k)s and annuities.
"When people begin thinking about retirement, preferably 10 years before and no less than five, they need to plan in detail for what they're going to do with their time, how they'll replace the social relationships they had at work, and where they might want to relocate," says Betty Meredith, director for education and research at the International Foundation for Retirement Education in Lubbock, Tex., which trains retirement specialists. But William Arnone, practice leader for employee financial services at Ernst & Young in New York, estimates that just "5% or fewer" of the retirement programs offered to employees address nonfinancial issues.
One way to seek answers is to find a "life planning" adviser, whose goal is to integrate lifestyle decisions with financial planning. (Check the Kinder Institute for Life Planning, which trains practitioners, at kinderinstitute.com.) But many people prefer a group experience where they can interact with others like them. Take Jan Fulwiler, 54, a Madison (Wis.) psychologist who attended "Paths to Creative Retirement in Uncertain Times" at UNC-Asheville. She says she found it useful and fun to spend a weekend with others who are grappling with the same issues. The workshop confirmed her plan to gain professional credentials so she can offer retirement planning classes in her community.
The program ran Friday morning through Sunday lunch in a large, airy classroom. There were a dozen participants, mostly in their mid-50s, who paid $500 each for the course, with meals. The group included executives, a nurse, and a university dean.
The tone set by the instructors, NCCCR Director Ronald Manheimer and Assistant Director Denise Snodgrass, was friendly and informal. But the students took the program seriously, working their way through lectures and activities designed to move them closer to a vision of the retirement life they want and the steps they need to take to get there. At the end, each participant gave a five-minute presentation of "first next steps" using digital photos, flowcharts, posters, funny hats, and original poetry.
Charles Hughes, 67, an attorney in Jackson, Miss., said the seminar helped him clear away the fog that had prevented him from defining his future retirement. Now he plans to sell some acreage and increase his investment income. These steps, he says, will enable him to support a lifestyle that includes foxhunting and quail-shooting in different seasons in various parts of the country.
Programs like the NCCCR's are just starting to emerge around the country. Another is a four-day "Reinventing Retirement" seminar held by Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara in California, which offers life and career planning ($1,995 for an individual, $1,795 for an accompanying spouse; hudsoninstitute.com.) Like other psychology-oriented retirement courses, the Institute uses a variety of teaching techniques. One is improvisation exercises led by a professional actor. Institute CEO Pamela McLean says the exercises may be "anything from a clap to a movement to a sound you repeat several times in unison," or creating a 10-minute play by completing sentences started by fellow students. The purpose is to get participants to move outside their usual way of thinking and be open to new ideas, she says.
If you're looking for something local, check with adult education programs, community colleges, and financial advisers in your area. Last spring, Diane Anderson, assistant director for careers and employment at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y., taught a class called "Finding Your Passion in Your Retirement Years." It aimed to help the 30 participants think about how to use their interests and skills to make their life after work a positive experience.
Peg Downey, a financial planner in Silver Spring, Md., organized a 10-week course for Washington-area professional women two years ago. She used a women's financial-planning book as a text, but she says about half the course focused on nonfinancial issues. Joanne Eakin, 57, a program manager at the Federal Aviation Administration, says many of her friends were leaving the Washington area, and Downey's class helped her realize that she should consider relocating, too. Planning to retire in about two years, she recently checked out real estate in Austin and Houston. She also signed up for a women's workshop in Texas because "I want to establish a social network before moving, and this seems like a good way to do that."
Even employers are moving beyond financial planning. Forest-products company Weyerhaeuser (WY ), based in Federal Way, Wash., is considered a national model. It offers a one-day multifaceted retirement-planning program for employees under 50 as well as "Healthy-Wealthy-Wise," a 2 1/2-day seminar for workers 50 or older and their spouses or partners. Benefits-education manager Sally Hass says she announces the schedule a year in advance. The classes, which accommodate about 2,000 people a year in various U.S. and Canadian locations, fill up immediately. Hass says the goal is to help participants figure out how to use the "bonus years to have a meaningful life and not have regrets." One of her teaching techniques requires participants to reflect on satisfying past experiences and consider how to replicate them in retirement.
Going to retirement school won't get you a degree to hang on the wall. But it could set you on the path to a more fulfilling life in your later years.
By Ellen Hoffman