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Rethinking retirement: How the pandemic has prompted people to get creative with their time and talent

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                David and Champa Jarmul, at their home in Durham, N.C., had to shelve plans for retirement travel.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    David and Champa Jarmul, at their home in Durham, N.C., had to shelve plans for retirement travel.

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Sylvia Saba outside her condominium in Sarasota, Fla.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Sylvia Saba outside her condominium in Sarasota, Fla.

David Jarmul and his wife, Champa, long envisioned what their retirement would look like. After returning from a two-year Peace Corps stint in Moldova in 2018, the couple, both 67, planned extensive travel, including trips to the Baltics, West Africa and Sri Lanka.

“Travel is our passion — it’s what we love to do,” said David Jarmul, who retired in 2015 as head of news and communications for Duke University.

For now the two are living a COVID-19 retirement — packed with volunteer and social pursuits but reconfigured for a social-distancing world. David Jarmul is delivering groceries to a local food pantry and engaging in a get-out-the-vote letter-writing campaign. And the two are caring for their 15-month- old grandson — playing hide-and-seek and reading books — while their son and daughter-in-law work from home and supervise the online classes of two older sons.

“We are happy to spend the time with him. It’s helpful for our son and daughter-in-law,” said Jarmul, author of “Not Exactly Retired,” a book about the couple’s Moldova experience.

As for his retirement dreams, Jarmul considers himself fortunate compared with those with true hardship. “Despairing is not a great solution,” he said. “We are trying deliberately to fill our lives with activities that give us meaning — remaining connected to our friends and being good members of the community.”

Just as the pandemic has upended the lives of students and workers, it is derailing the plans of many retirees. Besides any financial toll, the significant health risks that COVID-19 poses for seniors are forcing many retirees to defer cherished items on their bucket list: travel, volunteering at hospitals and schools, socializing at senior centers, and excursions to sports and cultural events.

Because of their age, some retirees worry they may need to scrap their plans altogether if coronavirus dangers persist.

“We recognize as we get older that the single most valuable thing we have is time, and healthy time. And time is being lost in this moment,” said Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging in Santa Monica, Calif. “It’s a source of anxiety for a lot of people who may be deferring plans to move or to spend time with kids and grandchildren.”

Still, more than six months into the pandemic, many retirees, after what some described as a period of fear and hopelessness, are finding ways to adapt.

Since the pandemic started, Phyllis Diamond, a New York therapist and retirement coach, said, clients are calling for advice on revising their retirement expectations. “I believe strongly in the importance of action,” she said. “Feeling stuck can lead to anxiety and depression.”

For many retirees stuck at home, technology is a lifeline. Though initially intimidated, they’ve turned to Zoom, YouTube, apps and streaming platforms to meet with friends, exercise, visit museums and volunteer, using websites like Volunteer Match.org.

The pandemic “is forcing many retirees to use technology that they may not have used previously,” said Roger Whitney, a certified financial planner in Fort Worth, Texas, and author of the book “Rock Retirement.” “That will bode well for them in the future.”

In mid-September the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke University began a fall curriculum of 65 courses, offered via Zoom to its nearly 2,600 members. Most courses are taught live by retired professors and other experts who are 65 and older. “Many are excited to be teaching online for the very first time,” said the institute’s director, Chris McLeod.

Diamond said that she and several clients take classes with Vitality Society, a virtual platform for people 60 and older that combines live exercise and wellness classes with social interaction among members.

The site launched in January, and membership began to take off as older adults moved into lockdown, said Meredith Oppenheim, a senior-business specialist who started the venture. Members pay $30 a month for unlimited classes, while nonmembers pay $10 per class.

The 15 to 20 participants in a class can see each other and the coach. Ten minutes before a session begins, classgoers can sign on and chat. “They really are forming virtual relationships,” Oppenheim said. For older adults, the “need to stay well and connected,” she said, “is more urgent than ever.”

Indeed, for retirees who previously kept busy schedules dining with friends, visiting the gym and hobnobbing at senior centers and volunteer programs, the potential for isolation and loneliness is a real concern.

Mark Fischer, 77, a retired financial planner, and his wife, Lucy Rose, 76, an artist, sought a vibrant city life when they moved in August 2019 from a house just outside Minneapolis to a two- bedroom apartment in a senior-living community downtown.

Now the building’s fitness center is closed, as is the activity room where residents attended an array of social activities and cultural programs.

To maintain their social connections, the couple have invited friends for dinner on their large balcony. And Fischer’s discovery of Zoom has “opened up the world for socializing.”

“I am talking to friends I have not seen for a long time,” he said.

Sylvia Saba, too, wanted to figure out how to alleviate the loneliness she and other older adults were experiencing.

Before the pandemic, her days were packed with activities at her retirement community in Sarasota, Fla., and at a nearby senior center. “Then the virus came along and we were all stuck alone,” said Saba, 65, who is divorced.

After some brainstorming, Saba, a retired French instructor, and her daughter Eva Hibnick, 35, a technology entrepreneur in Los Angeles, hit on an idea. In early July they launched Highway61, a website to help people 50 and older remain socially engaged.

Using the audio feature on a computer, tablet or smartphone, an older person can tap into group games and discussions on books, travel and aging alone.

“We were hoping people would make new friends and chat like they would at a cafe,” Saba said.

Retirees are also finding new ways to volunteer.

Laurie Goldwasser, 66, a retired geriatric social worker who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., has received extensive training as a COVID-19 contact tracer for Duke. She also is printing out absentee ballot request forms and filling out envelopes to be distributed to residents of senior housing complexes.

Goldwasser said her volunteer work with seniors has put the pandemic in perspective.

“The simplicity of the call really makes such a difference for these people, and they have enriched my life,” she said. “It is a constant reminder about how much I have to be grateful for.”

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