Couples in Retirement: Start Somewhere, Anywhere

In just an hour, Elbert Hubbard penned an inspirational story to fill the space in the 1899 edition of The Philistine. By some estimates, 40 million copies of this amazing story were in circulation by 1913.

What was all the fuss about? Hubbard told the account of a Captain Rowan’s trek that earned him a Congressional Service Cross for his execution of orders given by President McKinley:

Rowan took the letter, sealed it up in an oilskin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and delivered his letter… [Rowan] is a man…[who was] loyal to a trust,… [acted] promptly, concentrated [his] energies: [to] do the thing.

Rowan was, if not immortalized, then certainly famous for his ability to get the job done. Then as now, that illusive quality distinguishes a valuable employee from the average or less than ideal one. Rowan had that “can do” attitude, the “take charge” character, and the ability to succeed that so many employers seek when hiring.

Since this blog is about retiring and aging, you may be wondering why I call this story to your attention.

I find it helpful because the characteristics recalled in Rowan’s story are those required of a retiree as well, at least one who is successful at retirement. For retirees, I not only want to call attention to some things that don’t work, but also to look at some things that will.

(In advance I offer apology to the male readers. The stories here are not about women. Partly, that’s one of those “If the shoe fits, wear it” kind of thing. To be fair, I’d love some stories about women if you’ll share them.)

The Hoverer

Some retiree’s wives complain that retirement means “twice as much husband and half as much money.” These husbands find what their wives are doing interesting. Again. And again. If the spouse has been a stay-at-home partner, this attention could be simple curiosity: What really goes on around here when I’m not here?

Some years ago now a precocious three year-old child from next door popped up onto the porch swing with my wife one morning. After a few minutes of silence, she turned curious eyes to my wife and asked, “So, what do you do when Ed and Ellen are gone all day?”

Yep, a little bit of curiosity. Sure. That’s what’s happening. The newly retired spouse is curious, if not precocious. He shows that by hanging about. Constantly.

NOT! Or, at least, I bet not. What is more likely the case is that the husband is at loose ends and doesn’t know what to do. He is taking advantage of an already planned day and hoping to fit in.

Cowboy up, guy! Get your “I can do this” Rowan-thing going. A little understanding can’t hurt, either. And, a little less dependence would really be great.

The Helpful Hardware Man

Another retired fellow somewhat bored with his lot in life decided he could help his wife in the kitchen. So, while she was gone, he rearranged all the boxes and bottles in alphabetical order. I understand that the next day, while he was gone, she helped her husband by rearranging all the tools in the garage by size.

Neither project was voted a success. Or helpful.

Maybe you need to look around and see if you can find some orders from President McKinley lying about, so to speak. A little planning could really help. I suggest you investigate these:

The Honey-Do List

(I know it is a cliché. But it is an important one.)

When people start living at home full time, projects just seem to appear. Homebodies can only stare at a wall so long before it becomes “obvious” that that room needs painting. Just ask my wife. Just the other day she started talking about painting the bedroom. Again. We just did it in… Oops. Yep, I guess she’s right.

Or maybe that long-standing list needs revisiting: Is it time to finish that deck or screen in the porch? Maybe some plants need planting.

Guys, please remember. It is highly likely she would not be asking if she could do it herself.

Negotiating what should come next and how to get the job done is a better way to approach the problem than simply “being helpful” with the cans and boxes.

Explore a Cherished Hobby

I know people who couldn’t wait for retirement to come so they could spend more time on the links. Others want to get back into photography.

I spent a lot of time right after retirement taking photography classes. However, as much as I like photography, and I do like it, after the classes were over I couldn’t see myself getting up each morning going out to take pictures.

The opposite could also be true. My friend John got a job at a golf pro shop. It didn’t pay much, but pay wasn’t the objective. He got to play golf and talk golf more often!

Some hobbies stick. Some might not. So, as you get back into a hobby a little more seriously, consider it as exploration. Retry some favorites to see if they still fit. Search out something new to try.

And don’t be alarmed if the novelty wains after a time. Even the most challenging of hobbies can lose their interest over time. Consider a burgeoning loss of interest an opportunity to explore possibilities.

Get to Volunteering

You can find volunteering options available in almost any topic or interest you want. I’ve interviewed nearly 100 people about volunteering and found opportunities from golfing to sewing, in hospitals and in prisons, outside and indoors, for two hours and two years, and working with people, animals, and even historical records. Check out my free podcast on Stitcher or the volunteering blog posts at

Go to the Y

Up, out, and to the gym. My friend Vern and his wife, Florence, came to exercise every morning. “We consider this our new job,” said Vern. In their 80s, they both thought it essential for keeping up. Their decision and dedication gave them a better quality of life both physically and socially.

You are not limited to staring at what your spouse does to figure out what to do in retirement. The opportunities abound! Look around. Take charge, Captain Rowan!

Retirees: Help the newbies out. What did you try early on in your retirement that worked? What didn’t?

Ed Zinkiewicz

…the retired guy