When It's Time to Retire: Notes From the Afterlife

David Loxterkamp, MD


Ann Fam Med. 2018;16(2):171-174. 

In This Article

A Glass Half Full

There is no need to nurse a half-empty glass. I realize how lucky I am to be among the surviving 83% of Americans born in 1953. Half of us again will not turn 80. Leaving a life's work necessarily brings a mixture of emotion, a parting of "such sweet sorrow" that most linger "till it be morrow."[1] Doctors, especially, know how lucky we are to be alive and purposeful, and how quickly that luck can change.

The employees of the Verso Paper Mill in Bucksport, Maine need no reminding. Three years ago, the mill shuttered its doors, terminating 500 jobs and cutting the local tax base by half. Verso's demise was Maine's fifth such mill closure in recent years, joining Great Northern Paper in East Millinocket, Lincoln Pulp and Tissue, Old Town Fuel and Fiber, and Madison Paper Industries. Maine's paper industry peaked at 18,000 workers in the 1960s, but now fewer than a third of that number are employed in the industry. Analysts attribute the decline to weak demand, high energy costs and foreign competition—a symptom of the times, and felt not only in Maine but across the rustbelt.

Many of Verso's employees were also patients of mine. For them, the mill closure meant more than the loss of a good paying job; their daily routine, peer group, and sense of identity likewise disappeared. Those who were lucky enough to find work elsewhere now faced a long commute and steep cut in pay.

I am all the more grateful that my employment was never at risk. That the decision to retire was entirely my own. That my patients were, for the most part, fellow taxpayers, parishioners, Friday-night revelers, community gardeners, boosters of the local shops and schools. That I spent my career in a community that was equally committed to me. To my former patients I am still "doc." We are diversely connected, tightly bound.

I have lived an old-fashioned life, one of vows and commitments and faith in the long haul. Buy and hold, we were once taught. Thirty-three years on the job has paid the rent, provided a sense of purpose and routine, and scripted my social interactions. More importantly, it connected me to a peer group and reinforced the ring of reciprocal connections that make up a community. These relationships, like those forged in marriage, family, and friendship, keep growing in value. Over the years they become our pillar of strength when illness and old age chip away at the ordinary pleasures of life.