The final chapter of my latest book, Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives, is titled “The Imprisonment of Old Age.” In that chapter, Harold Whittington, a ninety-two-year-old WW II veteran, offers the following:
“That got me thinking about something I’ve never considered—being young might be more difficult than being old. I believe there are three distinct phases to life: youth, retirement, and old age. The first and the last phases can be difficult, so perhaps retirement allows us to catch our breath before we undertake life’s final challenges. I’m in old age now, but I would not want to be young again.
“What I remember most about being young was the chronic lack of sleep, a time when the only extra-curricular activity I had was work. My entire “youth” was defined by working, and I worked extreme hours. I held down multiple jobs and eked out a living. Anything “fun” was out of the question. I would not want to do that again. Being young was not fun; it was hard.
“I believe today’s young people are confronted with the same issues Otto and I faced. They must work hard to survive…or fall by the wayside. It’s a choice, and the only advice I can offer to them is this: the retirement years make the pain worthwhile. I kept working and it was worth it. There is no easy way to get to the retired phase of life. Young people must work hard and have faith.”
I am now in old age and clearly understand Harold’s advice. Like him, my youth was spent working hard. I came from a poor family. There were no breaks. There were no vacations. There was only work—long hours and very few weekends off. I worked three jobs during college and was drafted into the military three days after graduation from the University of Washington. I managed to avoid a stint in the Marines by joining the AF, a lucky break when another individual failed his physical in eastern Washington. I believe one of the most important messages Officers Training School had to offer was, “Officers Compete!” That guideline followed me through my military career. Those who did not compete were subject to RIF—reduction in force. The hours were long; education and excellent grades were mandatory. Officers compete.
I traveled extensively, something my wife hated. When I retired, my wife believed we might settle down and slow down. That did not happen. I left the military as a LT COL, a mid-level manager. As a civilian, however, I was again at the bottom of the pile. I worked extreme hours to inch my way up the civilian hierarchy. Travel gradually became vital to my job, and eventually became far more prominent than it had been in the military. My wife chafed at that. Our children reached the terrible teens and our family disintegrated. Divorce then stripped away everything I had worked for all my life. Judges are not interested in equal distribution, but in keeping those who have never worked and took no effort to attain training off the welfare rolls. I was destitute, but I had a good job.
I met my current wife in that time frame. She was young and ambitious. We soon agreed to be a couple and developed a written ten-year plan to reach retirement. The plan required an incredible amount of commitment and a load of work. We both threw everything we had into it. In less than ten years we quit working for good, a feat possible only because we both were dedicated to the plan and had expended great effort to become well educated when we were younger.
I have been retired for over sixteen years now. Most of that time has been good. I wrote books when I wanted, did anything I wanted, and went anywhere I wanted. I believed that would be the course of my life until I died. I was wrong; Harold was right—retirement was the break I needed to rest up, the break to prepare for old age. My wife, fourteen years my younger, developed Minimal Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a precursor to early onset Alzheimer’s. I am now a caretaker. My wife is my job. I love her with all my heart and will ensure she lacks for nothing as she goes through what must be the most terrifying experience of her life.
What Harold wrote is true. Retirement prepares a person for old age. Old age is not fun. It is work. If you are lucky the mind remains strong, but the body hurts most of the time. Stamina ebbs. Medical issues creep into every aspect of life. If you are not lucky, the mind ebbs as well. The world slips away until even the memory of the world fades.
So why am I writing this? If one young person takes heed of it, then this blog will be worthwhile. Working hard when young is preparation for retirement. And retirement is vital to weathering the end game. Harold is surviving his end game because he gave his all when he was young. He also had many good years during retirement. His memory has faded now. His wife of nearly 70 years has died. He hurts. Life for him is not good. I am just entering that phase of life, but I enter knowing I will make it to the end with dignity. I will care for my wife until she passes into the oblivion of Alzheimer’s, and enough will remain for others to care for me when the time comes.
My advice is now the same Harold’s: work hard and prepare for your end game while you can. Old age is truly the final imprisonment.
Thanks for reading,
James L. Hatch