Several weeks ago, I attended a Grandma Moses exhibit at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla. In addition to enjoying her paintings, I was reminded of what a remarkable woman she was. She painted her first painting when many people consider themselves too old to do anything productive or meaningful. And she didn't do it with the idea of selling her work. She loved to embroider and when she got arthritis, she could no longer do that.

However, she discovered that painting was less painful. So rather than give up, at the age of 77, she began painting. She eventually became a national treasure and continued painting until her death at the age of 101! She once wrote, "What a strange thing is memory and hope; one looks backward, the other forward; one is of today, the other of tomorrow."

Financial life planners deal with both. When I hear her story, I am reminded of the great things that so many people accomplished after that "magic" age of 65, when society tells us that we should retire.  Perhaps that was true many years ago when most people in our culture earned their livings by manual labor and the average person did not live to be 60. Of course, all of that has changed. But our obsession with retirement as the ultimate goal in life has not.

All we need to do is read or watch the ads of the financial services firms who are selling retirement to the baby boomers. Their presumption is that everyone who can retire does retire. So the key is to have enough money invested and all dreams will be fulfilled. They never seem to mention what people will do with their time (other than take a few vacations or play some golf) after they stop working. Another financial advisor once told me that he does not do retirement planning for his clients because "they have enough money to retire." Obviously, he defines retirement as a financial event and not a major life transition. Well, Grandma Moses would have none of it. And, regardless of your political affiliation, you can't help but admire John McCain (at 72) for running a vigorous campaign for what is probably the most demanding job in the world.  Or so many of the other achievements by people when they were supposed to be retired: Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa when he was 76; Golda Meir, the first female prime minister of Israel at 71; Winston Churchill began to serve his second term as prime minister when he was 77; Viktor Frankl, whose experiences at Auschwitz lead to his writing of Man's Search for Meaning, continued to teach until he was 85; and Justice John Paul Stevens still serves on the Supreme Court at the age of 87.

Ironically, shortly after my visit to the museum, I met with one of my clients whose plan was to retire on January 1 of this year (she is 66), but she was still working. What changed her mind, we asked. She told us that she had taken two weeks off with no vacation plans. Those two weeks convinced her that retirement would "bore me to death." There may be some truth to that. A study published by the British Medical Journal in 2005 indicated that death was almost twice as likely in the first ten years after retirement at age 55 compared with those who continued working. We asked her why she told us a year ago that she was ready to retire. She confessed that she enjoyed what she was doing, but didn't like the long daily commute in traffic.         And the knowledge that she had enough money helped her to make the decision that it was time to retire. We wonder how the media's and financial services firms' obsession with retirement affected her decision.  She is rethinking that and is looking for work closer to her home.

So, what is our role in all of this? When our clients tell us that they want to retire in one or two years or at some age (such as 55 or 65), what responsibility do we have? I fear that many planners approach this from a purely quantitative point of view. They run the numbers, discover that it is financially feasible to retire and deliver the "good news" to their clients. But is that enough? I suppose that depends on how we define our roles and what we do for our clients. The mission at our firm is a simple one: "To improve the quality of our clients' lives." That involves counseling them on the potential outcomes of their decisions-and not just the financial consequences. We tell our clients that retiring from something may result in disappointment. What, we ask, are you retiring to?  Some may say golf, or travel, or fishing. But we challenge that because those activities, while enjoyable, will take up only a small percentage of their lives. Do they have something to do that is enjoyable, meaningful and rewarding?  Some do, but many may live to regret their decisions, and I believe it is our job to help them through this major transition before what may be an irrevocable decision is made and regretted.

The reality is that many financial advisors may be part of the problem. Most questionnaires that clients are asked to complete include the question, "When do you plan to retire?" Well, that sounds rather presumptuous to me, and reinforces the "noise" they hear from the companies who convince them that retirement is the ultimate goal in life. Of course, these messages don't suggest what people will do with the next 30 years of their lives.  We ask the question differently: "How do you visualize your life in your 60's, 70's 80's and beyond?" We should never forget that retirement, by itself, is not really a goal, but a tactic. Living a happy and fulfilled life is a goal. Retirement may be one way of doing that, but there are many others, and it is our job as financial life planners to help our clients discover what will fulfill their dreams. If not us, then whom?  Other questions that may help your clients to make decisions that satisfy them are:
What do you like most about your job?  
What do you like least?  
What do you most look forward to about the future?
What is your biggest fear about the future?
How do you want to be remembered?
What causes are important to you?
  If time were not an issue, would you volunteer?"  

The purpose of these questions and others like them is to help our clients focus on what is meaningful and important in their lives. Retirement may be the ideal time to accomplish that, but continuing to work may be their most rewarding activity. It certainly is for me, and retiring is something I just can't foresee in my future. I know that I am not alone.   

Maurice Chevalier, who performed well into his eighties, was asked what his secret was for staying young. He answered, "One does not grow old until he believes he has more to look back on than he has to look forward to."  We need to help our clients focus on the future and make decisions that will keep them happy and productive. For some people that may mean not retiring at all. For others it suggests retiring to something rather than from work. As the great Grandma Moses said, "If I hadn't started painting, I would have raised chickens."