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Slowing Down: Easing into Retirement

By A. Jan Berlin, MD

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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Scope.


The word retirement, by definition, is freighted with multiple meanings. For that matter, so is the use of the phrase “slowing down” to a physician who doesn’t understand the concept. With two part-time jobs, isn’t the title of this paper a bit of an oxymoron?1

In preparation, I went on the web and looked up some definitions of retirement to learn that Abe Lemons took the comedic approach when he declaimed “the trouble with retirement is that you never get a day off,” while Margaret Mead defiantly stated, “Sooner or later, I am going to die, but I’m not going to retire.”

If pressed for a definition for retirement, I would have to answer that I haven’t a clue! Furthermore, I seem to bridle when one of my acquaintances asks what I am doing now that I am retired. Although I really don’t understand yet why I take mental exception to the question, I take pains to point out that I am busy in my two jobs and other civic responsibilities and not retired.

It is interesting to note that the average age of retirement has declined over the past century, from 74 years in 1910 to 62 years in 2002. Yet other barometers seem to point out that seniors are staying more active now than ever before.

William Bridges uses the term “transitions” in his book describing the changes that we undergo with aging.2 He postulated four rules, which I found extremely helpful in making my transition from a full-time practicing ophthalmologist focused on a surgical subspecialty to something else, which was undefined at the time I stepped down from active practice.

Rule 1. You find yourself coming back in new ways to old activities, when you are in transition.

Rule 2. Every transition begins with an ending.

Rule 3. Although it is very advantageous to understand your style of endings, there is some part of you that will resist that understanding as though your life depended on it.

Rule 4. First there is an ending, then a beginning, with an important empty or fallow time in between.

This then will be a story of my transition, which began in 1986, while I was at the Cleveland Clinic and in my early 50’s. I was beginning to feel vague stirrings about the pressures of my life. In 1988, Louise and I chartered a boat named Merlin from Morris Yachts in Southwest Harbor, Maine. At the time, we were open to a new direction for our lives. While ashore during the Fourth of July parade, we watched the town parade go around twice, to make up for its short length. We looked at each other, laughing with pleasure, and realized Maine was a place that could make sense for us. The search was on.

In 1990, we moved to Maine, where I joined the Maine Eye Center. During that transition, my role on the Academy’s Instruction Advisory Committee kept me grounded. We were quickly integrated into the community with civic involvement in our town and on boards. Singing, one of my other passions, was better than I expected, with solo appearances with the Portland and Bangor Symphony Orchestras, the Bowdoin Summer Music Festival and Maine Music Society. For fun, I have sung the National Anthem for the Portland Sea Dogs and the Maine Legislature, while serving as Doctor of the Day, which I continue to do. And, of course, there is the incredible coast and skiing in the winter. Never have I been in better physical shape with the benefits of biking, hiking in the mountains nearby and walking before work.

In July of 1999, another transition began as I stepped down from active practice at the Maine Eye Center. I took Bridge’s advice, with no planned work for over two years, but again my roles with the Academy as Secretary for the Annual Meeting and as a member of the Board of Trustees kept me actively engaged.

An amazing coincidence then occurred in the spring of the next year. While perusing a boating magazine, I found a Morris 36 for sale on Lake Michigan. We had chartered one of these boats twice before, including the episode I detailed above. Some research determined that this boat, renamed, was the very boat on which Louise and I decided to create a new life in Maine. We returned the boat to Maine and christened her “Aria.”

Then in 2002, I took on the role of Director of Development for the Iris Network, a non-profit agency headquartered in Portland serving the blind and visually impaired. While there I visualized the need for a Low Vision Clinic located in the agency and proceeded to obtain training at The Lighthouse.

As my role with the Academy terminated after chairing my last Opening Session in November 2004, I returned home to find an offer to join the Maine Medical Center Physician-Hospital Organization part-time as Associate Director of Quality Improvement. My colleague, Jeff Berman, found the job description a month before and thought it might be perfect for me. He was prescient, for it has been a phenomenal job with great people working as a team on quality initiatives.

Shortly thereafter, we opened the Low Vision Clinic at Iris Network, which I staff twice monthly, so I was back into clinical work.

Where has this led now? I am working on average about 32 hours a week. My brain is actively engaged at the MMC-PHO and Low Vision Clinic, but I don’t have call or the responsibilities of surgery. In addition, I am able to volunteer at Maine Handicapped Skiing, guiding visually impaired skiers during the winter, while throwing in a few weeks skiing in Park City. In the summer, we sail the glorious coast of Maine, where we turn into beach bums on outlying islands. I will close by quoting Thoreau – “Go forth in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined!”

1 Associate Medical Director, Quality Improvement, MMC Physician-Hospital Organization, and Medical Director, Low Vision Clinic, The Iris Network, Portland, Maine.

2 Bridges, William. Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Twenty- Seventh Printing, October 1993.

 
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