4 Necessities for a Successful Retirement

Large group of seniors exercising in retirement villa garden
Getty ImagesAn active social life contributes to your health and well-being in retirement.

By Tom Sightings

The long-awaited day has arrived. You've signed the papers and celebrated with a goodbye party. You're free and clear for the rest of your life. So, now what happens?

Maybe you've made some plans. You might have signed up as a volunteer, joined a golf league, started babysitting your grandchildren or prepared to relocate to a coastal Carolina or the Costa del Sol. But will your plans produce a satisfying retirement? There are four big issues to consider when setting off in retirement. Check to see if you've got them covered.

Money. Money by itself won't make you happy. But a solid financial footing does provide the foundation for a comfortable retirement. You can live on Social Security alone, but it's not easy. Do you really want to spend your golden years scraping together rent money, turning down the heat to save on utility bills and selling your car and taking the bus because you couldn't put in the effort to save?

Money issues generally don't resolve themselves if you ignore them. So no matter how averse you are to opening your credit card bill or talking to an investment adviser, to survive in retirement you need to assess where you stand financially. While some retirement savers are sitting pretty with a secure pension and a paid-off mortgage, others may be paying down credit card debt and trying to build up an IRA. In both cases you need a plan to make the most of your assets.

%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-723%Health. We all know what awaits us in the end. But there are many ways to go, and most agree the best way is to live a healthy and pain-free life into your 90s, then go quickly, preferably in your sleep. No one can guarantee you a healthy old age, but there are many things you can do now to make the prospects more promising for your later years, from eating right and exercising to taking appropriate measures to be safe on the streets and in your home.

Everyone knows we're supposed to eat our veggies and avoid fat and sugar. Walking is probably the best exercise for those of us with back problems, or who have survived knee or hip surgery. Ballroom or country dancing is a gentle but somewhat aerobic activity. Even golf, while not much exercise, keeps the limbs moving and the body stretching. Instead of doing something just because it's good for you, the secret is to participate in a physical activity you enjoy so you will keep doing it.

Companionship. Many studies have found that social isolation can cause both physical and psychological problems. Conversely, an active social life contributes significantly to well-being in our later years. For example, a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health found that people who enjoy "high-quality intimate relationships" have better physical health and emotional well-being as they age than those who lack social relationships. The relationships often involve married partners, but not always. Close friendships can also provide much of the emotional and practical support that comes with marriage.

Another study from Harvard University found that elderly people in the U.S. who have an active social life may have a slower rate of memory decline. In the study, individuals with the highest social integration showed less than half the rate of memory decline compared to the least socially integrated. The bottom line: being engaged in a community not only makes you happy and provides security, but also helps you stay alert and engaged with different ideas, stimulating conversations and challenging new concepts.

Purpose. We know that stress is bad for us, and has even been linked to the development of dementia. But having a sense of purpose in life and a connection to something larger than yourself, whether it's a job, an important role in your family life or a commitment to a social or charitable cause, is linked to major health benefits, including protection against cognitive decline.

Those of us who have retired have already made whatever difference we're going to make in our professional lives. The challenge of retirement is to make a difference outside of work with your family, community or in developing your own skills or consciousness. So, whatever you do, give yourself a reason to get out of bed in the morning, connect with other people and engage in activities that you feel are meaningful.

Tom Sightings blogs at Sightings at 60.