“Tanda,” a Filipino term for “old,” can also mean “sign.” So one can easily ask: What is the sign of getting old (Ano ang tanda ng tumatanda)? The song “Kahit maputi na ang buhok ko” speaks of love that persists even as one’s hair turns grey—just one sign of ageing.
Of course, the birthdate is used as a common reference to classify the term “senior,” when a Filipino citizen can start benefiting from discounts on food, medicine, transport and other services. In many countries, reaching a certain age also signifies the onset of retirement.
When I turned 61, I began counting the months to my complete pullout from paid work. Although the organization I worked for raised the retirement age from 62 to 65, I continued my countdown. But when I finally “started” my retirement last June, I realized that I had not really visualized life during retirement. I was too preoccupied finishing up work and making sure I left some sort of legacy. Or was I just being my usual workaholic self?
Paperwork and moving my personal effects kept me busy in my first month of retirement.
One morning in the second month, as I got up from bed, I experienced sharp pain and could not bear the pressure on my feet. Simply put, I could not walk. I comforted myself with the idea that this may just be the return of the back pain I usually experienced now and then, for a day or two, due to long hours of sitting and plane rides. To my dismay, the situation lasted for two months.
To ease the pain, I took long walks. I also enlisted at a fitness place where I could swim, join body balance, yoga, and le barre classes, and, yes, even HIIT (high-intensity interval training). But I could not hold certain poses because of excruciating pain. I went back to my beloved bike but almost fell as I dismounted and again felt the sharp pain. After that experience, I developed the fear of falling and stopped biking.
As a nonbeliever in pain relievers, I thought of non-invasive ways to ease my discomfort. I went for Ayurvedic massage, acupuncture, and physiotherapy, and slowly the pain was reduced. In discussions with the professionals who provided the therapy services, I tried to understand what exactly was happening (was it the sciatic nerve or the psoas?) and how I could help myself deal with it. At one point, I told myself, this was one of the early signs of ageing.
When older people start forgetting things, they immediately tell themselves, “Tumatanda na ako” (I’m growing old). But the signs come slowly for some and faster for others. The most noticeable are the physical signs—wrinkles, back pain, sagging strength (I find it even difficult to open bottles), bladder issues, dry skin. Mental and psychological signs follow.
Friendly chats, ‘refirement’
Somehow, I tried to prepare myself mentally by visiting and talking to similarly situated friends on how they have managed to transition to retirement. One friend in Capetown, South Africa, brought me to a book club with other retired women. We regularly met once monthly, with each talking about the book she was reading and that was available for others to borrow.
Listening to all of them sharing their thoughts and the latest news on families and friends made me realize that while it is a privilege to find time, it is a necessity to keep meeting friends in whatever way. The sumptuous potluck lunch was just a precursor to a warm and mentally stimulating afternoon.
Meanwhile, my friend’s 75-year-old husband, a retired heart surgeon, was not only tending to their garden and helping others in their own gardens but was also involved in conflict resolution workshops. During dinner, my friend and her husband would discuss the idea of “refirement” instead of retirement, and how we need new ways to reboot our lives after working for decades.
On my visit to the family of a Filipino woman I met in Africa and who had moved to Brussels, I had a discussion with her husband who recently retired from work with the European Union. I asked him about his plans.
Jokingly, he said that many of our colleagues were taking on consultancy work, which was easy because of their networks, and that it was one way to maintain a certain lifestyle. But that is not the route he is taking, he said. He is going to take care of his 7-year-old daughter and move back to the United Kingdom and renovate his house.
I responded by mentioning some colleagues who had sent feelers to find out if I would be interested in consultancies. I also told him that I’d been thinking of changing careers, if one could do so at our age. What is clear is this: I want to transition from a fast-paced and stressful work life to a relaxed way of living, including spending more time with family and friends.
Facebook brims with information on what retired family members and friends are up to. The internet is full of stories of what retirees have been doing, and the wide variety of options they can choose from when they step out of paid work. Of course, there are gender and class differences on the way to retirement.
Retiring at home
In the Philippines, the biggest challenge to retirement involves finances. An international survey released last October reported that the Philippines has the second worst pension in the world. While it may be argued that the family is a social net that retirees can rely on, retirement also means one less occupational income. This income loss is exacerbated by retirees’ health issues that involve more medication and hospital care.
As a logical phase in our lives, transitioning to retirement requires physical, mental and psychological stamina, and some degree of financial stability. This is not the reality for many Filipinos, and which results in a notion of retirees as “dependents.”
I have told myself that I would like to live independently of my daughters for the next 10 years as I cannot imagine myself becoming a burden and being dependent on them. But this mindset is not the choice for most retirees, who would need the support of their families to transition from a life of income-earners to pensioners.
Carolyn Medel-Anonuevo is a former head of education of Unesco’s regional office in Southern Africa. She was also deputy director at the Unesco Institute for Lifelong Learning, which is responsible for literary and adult education. —Ed.