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  • Planning for and Succeeding in Retirement

    In 2018, former Scope editor, Dr. M. Bruce Shields began sharing some of the activities of fellow retired ophthalmologists. His stories of many distinguished colleagues have inspired many of our readers.

    We think that the Academy and Scope could be of additional assistance to our members who are planning to retire and to those seeking greater contentment and joy in their retirement. This article will provide the background for what could become an ongoing series of interviews with retired ophthalmologists.

    We will ask ophthalmologists to tell their stories of when and why they retired; what they retired to accomplish, what has brought them fulfillment, how have they fared, and what would they have done differently with the wisdom of hindsight.

    John R. Stechschulte MD
    John R. Stechschulte, MD

    Three of the well-recognized, key components of retirement include family/social network, physical health, and financial planning. Retirement coaches advise doctors to begin discussing retirement with their spouses at least five or ten years in advance of this transition. You should resist the urge to precipitously move south from your hometown. You probably want to maintain the deep long-lasting friendships that become even more important after your children move away.

    Maintaining your optimal personal health is very possible despite increasing years; a surprising trend of improvement in health after retirement is being reported. Nearly every retirement guide (unfortunately) dwells almost exclusively on financial planning. Attaining financial independence is reassuring but retiring a millionaire does not guarantee happiness in what some life coaches describe as the “third” leg of your life.

    There is a final component, the fourth leg of the retirement chair. It is the most neglected aspect of planning and may be the hardest to construct and maintain. For now, let us call it fulfillment. This consists of our goals, aspirations, interests, hobbies, recreations, and dreams.

    A frequent goal for many is lifelong learning, so more retirees are now auditing college courses. Many aspire to give back to others by finding an impactful volunteer job. Numerous ophthalmologists are interested in writing their first novel or learning to play a musical instrument. Hobbies and recreation may be childhood interests or represent new opportunities that were not possible while practicing medicine. It even helps to have a moonshot. That is an idea that your friends will say is crazy or impossible, like sailing a boat from Bangor, Maine to the Florida Keys. However, your passion to attain that goal can be invigorating.

    We need tools to help us build this fourth, and less understood, leg of retirement. These tools or resources may be found in books, guides, TED talks, courses, advisors/coaches, or adventures. In coming Scope editions, we will try to reveal some pearls to success in retired life specific for our community of physicians. Columnist Doug Larson said, “If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there’d be a shortage of fishing poles.” Even the process of planning for our next “career” has been shown to reduce stress in our existing jobs. Once retired, people should regularly reassess their satisfaction and seek ways to find greater fulfillment.

    Although he is not retired, I asked Dr. Alfredo Sadun, the incoming editor of Scope, to comment on preparing for retirement. I’ve also asked him to answer this question: Have you found resources (non-financial) that have helped you retire or plan to retire? If so, then please describe this resource that could help other physicians.

    From Alfredo Sadun, MD, PhD

    I am certainly no expert on the first three tiers (family/health/finances) of Dr. Stechschulte’ s retirement concept and, as John said, I’m not retired yet.  But I see the beginning of retirement much like the launching of one’s first career.

    In this, I have some indirect experience. For three decades, I was the residency director of a large program, and in this capacity, met with and advised several hundred residents on their plans for starting a career in ophthalmology. Issues, such as overarching goals, were discussed. This includes John’s fourth tier — fulfillment. I think I learned to approach residents on thinking about planning a career with a purpose that we hoped would lead to their long-term fulfillment and contentment.

    The conversation often began with the resident thanking me and other faculty for our teaching and emphasizing that it has empowered them to a privileged level. Although I am not known for religiosity, I often quoted Luke 12:48: “Onto whom much is given, much is required.” This applies for two reasons. Firstly, we should feel obligated not to pass it back, but to pass it forward. And secondly, this desire to serve should propel young ophthalmologists throughout their careers.

    Yes, they also should craft career plans with regards to the first three tiers (family/health/finances), but if they were to neglect the fourth, fulfillment, they might suffer from discontentment by their lack of purpose. I had seen that and, noted ironically that the dispirited ophthalmologist also put the first three tiers into jeopardy.

    So how do you plan for retirement seeking fulfillment? I enjoyed reading (and hereby recommend) a friend’s book. Dr. Fritz Fraunfelder was the chairman of ophthalmology at Casey Eye Institute at Oregon Health Services University for decades and in 2009 wrote “Retire Right.” He and his physician co-author emphasized the necessity for having a sense of purpose in retirement and presented several scientific and controlled outcome measures that corroborated the importance of having a purpose for success and happiness in post-retirement life. 

    Retire Right book image

    I have also watched several of my role models as they handled retirement. These are colleagues who led very distinguished careers as ophthalmologists or scientists, who went on to retirements that were also successful, probably because they applied themselves in similar fashion — with purpose, and in doing so, achieved fulfillment. Their post-retirement purposes were often different from those they used when running large clinical, research or teaching programs. But their lives demonstrated purpose and fulfillment as they remained fixed on the North Star of service.

    I recommend the same tactic in planning for retirement as I suggest for my residents looking for their first jobs. First, find your passion. Joseph Campbell, the well-known Sarah Lawrence College professor (who inspired George Lucas) would prescribe: “follow your bliss.” Then, look about for unmet needs. The overlap in this Venn diagram is where you should plan to dedicate some of your post-retirement time. In my case, I think I can still find fulfillment in pre-retirement. My rocking chair is another resource. From there, I read a lot of books, run lab meetings, facetime with my granddaughter and write. Not as often as I would like, but from my rocking chair I also look out upon the garden and indulge myself in wild thought experiments. That’s just me.

    We seek your assistance in continuing this discussion by responding to these questions: Would you like the Academy to make more resources (non-financial) available that may help you in your retirement? Have you found resources that have helped you in retirement? Let us know by writing to