Goodbye and Hello!

Career women look forward to rewarding, fulfilled lifestyles in old age, while many of them are opting for early retirement

Shwetha E George Kottayam 

What does it mean to be ‘retired’? How does one suddenly put a stop to the 9-to-5 schedule of 30 years and instead live a life free of the hectic conferences and endless meetings that were once part of one’s daily routine? Dr Achamma Thomas, 72, a retired professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the Government Medical College, Kottayam, Kerala, has some practical advice, “Be mentally prepared and plan for that life long before you give up working. And, yes, pray that your health will not betray you mid-way.”

Daisy Mathew, 60, took the VRS (voluntary retirement scheme) option available to government employees the very year it was introduced and thereafter enrolled for a one-year residential course in clinical pastoral counselling run by the Thomas Mar Athenesius Institute of Counselling, Kottayam, affiliated to Serampore University, West Bengal. “My plans were definite. I knew I wanted to be a counsellor all along,” says Daisy, who had worked with the State Bank of Travancore for 29 years. What hastened her plunge into counselling was a three-month crash course she had undertaken during her banking years. “That helped me relate better with my clients, understand their worries, and guide them to taking the right financial decision,” she says. Today, Daisy, who works full-time with the institute where she studied, derives great satisfaction from her new vocation.

Most retired professional women are happy to get a break from their killing schedule — having balanced the home- and work-front for years. But they do admit that none of it is possible without a strong support system at home. It could be their mother-in-law or an aunt or a trusted hired help, who is around 24x7 to take care of the children and handle any domestic emergency that may arise.

Susan Varghese, 74, a retired professor of sociology at Andhra University, is glad she moved to Vellore. Although a widow who lives alone, as a member of her local Senior Citizens Association, the Senior Citizens Book Club, a Sunday school teacher and a consultant with her former department on post-doctoral work, she keeps herself busy. ‘Vellore has an academic environment,’ she says 

Bala, 73, who was a literature professor at the Assumption College in Changanasserry for 30 years, was blessed with “the best mother-in-law in the world”, who raised both her children and ran her home during those tough years. Achamma, on the other hand, depended on her maid of 40 years. Also, fortunately, her husband was a plastic surgeon, who kept regular hours. “Gynaecology is extremely demanding and I have had to rush for emergencies at midnight,” she recalls, adding that it was her husband who drove her to the hospital at odd hours.

At the junior level, every third day meant 24-hour clinical duty for Achamma. When promoted to associate professor, she had to be on call 24 hours unless she was on casual leave. Then, as head of the department, she was responsible for all the units in her department in addition to the regular clinical and academic duties. A packed schedule meant there were numerous times when this committed doctor had to cancel family get-togethers, leave a movie theatre half-way and forego long holidays with her children.

By 55, she had had enough. “I decided that I was going to spend all my free time with my family. I learnt cooking and started to tend to my garden. My grandson was born in my house and I raised him until he was four years old,” she says with a happy smile.

“As long as you work, your job gives you an identity, a financial role and prestige,” observes Daisy, “but post-retirement life is not about any of these things — it’s about self-actualization and satisfaction.”

Susan Varghese, 74, a retired professor of sociology at Andhra University, is glad she moved to Vellore in neighbouring Tamil Nadu a decade back. Although a widow who lives alone, as a member of her local Senior Citizens Association, the Senior Citizens Book Club, a Sunday school teacher and a consultant with her former department on post-doctoral work, she keeps herself busy. “Vellore has an academic environment that is welcoming for retired professors like me,” she says.

According to Susan, voluntary work with non-government organizations (NGOs) and religious groups, travelling or finding a new hobby are just some of the common after-retirement activities that are available to educators, although, she admits, teaching often remains their most-preferred vocation. This was true in Bala’s case; after retiring at 55, she continued to teach at various private institutes for another eight years.

At 51, Beena R., a respected maths teacher, has already begun thinking of all the post-retirement activities she would like to pursue. Leading her list of fun things is a visit to a pilgrimage destination once a year, though for her too teaching will remain a constant. “Teaching is my passion so my plan definitely includes taking tuitions,” she says. 

Being content is the primary goal for many women at this stage. According to Daisy, most are trying to ward off all sorts of negativity and sadness. These are feelings that “can occur in plenty” when one suddenly seems to be without purpose. Drawing from her counselling experience, she adds, “Menopause followed by a reduced sexual libido adds to the darkness. And the sudden transition from being an earning member in the family to a dormant one can be a difficult reality to deal with.”

Of course, Bala, who is earning three times her last salary as pension today, is more optimistic in her outlook. She says, “The slide in financial freedom can be managed. As it is, I am not interested in shopping anymore because I don’t step out of the house daily.” Her husband has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma and these days visits are more to the hospital and diagnostics centres. What is more important, Bala feels, is to hold on to your self-esteem, “You shouldn’t feel sorry for yourself. Never feel that your life is over.”

Adds AccammaChacko, 82, retired nursing superintendent and professor of pediatric nursing, Christian Medical College, Vellore, “My colleagues and I are not worried about money. We have saved enough and we get our pensions.” Today, Accamma divides her time between running a special school, giving weekly classes in pediatric nursing in various private institutions and caring for her husband, who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

The recurring pattern in most women’s lives is that most do not live with their children. While Bala and Achamma visit their sons in the Gulf almost yearly, Daisy has two married daughters. Her husband runs his own insurance consultancy firm and so the couple is busy with their separate work schedules. Says Beena, whose only child, a daughter, is preparing for her post-graduation medical entrance tests, “Children should have their own lives after marriage. No grandparent will say ‘no’ to babysitting, but it is difficult work. So it has to be an occasional responsibility.”

Daisy, however, adds, “There does come a time when you are not able to live on your own — and it is then that children come into decision-making.” There are not many old-age homes so the convenient option is to join the children wherever they are. For care-giving, it’s a home nurse to the rescue who charges anywhere between Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000 a month.

Though women who have led fiercely independent lives find this a far from ideal situation, Bala puts it this way, “Most of us don’t want to be a burden on our children and add to their worries by being the obstinate parent who refuses to live anywhere but in her own home.”

The idea is to ‘accept’ and not ‘adjust’ to the change in life. “The moment you use the word ‘adjust’, you are already feeling sorry for yourself,” says Daisy. But accepting life as it is — that is the beginning of a positive outlook. Add to that, a routine that doesn’t involve popping tablets, and life in the twilight zone can actually be wonderful.  

Women’s Feature Service

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2013