Special Reports

Triangle seniors redefine what it means to retire successfully

Volunteer Julia Daniels, second from right, laughs as Mikayla Richards, 13, right, of Durham recently completes an experiment in the Micro Lab at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. At left is Mikayla's grandmother, Mizuko Morimoto and little sister, Mina, 9. Daniels is one of many retirees who have managed the transition from work to retirement.
Volunteer Julia Daniels, second from right, laughs as Mikayla Richards, 13, right, of Durham recently completes an experiment in the Micro Lab at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. At left is Mikayla's grandmother, Mizuko Morimoto and little sister, Mina, 9. Daniels is one of many retirees who have managed the transition from work to retirement. cliddy@newsobserver.com

When Julia Daniels and her husband, Bob Trullinger, were researching where to move after they left their teaching jobs in New York, they knew they wanted a place where they could retire and retire well.

For Daniels and Trullinger, both college professors who lived busy and active lives, that meant an area that offered an abundance of physically and intellectually stimulating activities.

“I knew I needed a certain pace of living, of meaningful things to do,” said Daniels, 70. “ ... What we really did a lot of searching about was, how do we want to spend the day when we wake up? What do we envision ourselves doing?”

That search led them to the Triangle, specifically to Cary, where they moved in May of last year to begin their retirement. Since they arrived, the couple have plunged headfirst into everything this region has to offer. Daniels volunteers with Cary Visual Arts and they both volunteer at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and WUNC. A favorite activity has been attending the monthly scholar presentations at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park.

“We had a list, and this area we knew would satisfy that list,” Daniels said. “But it’s provided so much more. We’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

While much attention is rightfully focused on the need for people to prepare financially to retire, less talked about is how to successfully make the transition from work into retirement. Many seniors struggle to find a post-retirement identity, particularly those who had significant success in their professional careers.

The issue is particularly pertinent in the Triangle, which has become one of the country’s most attractive destinations for retirees.

Between 2000 and 2010, the Raleigh-Cary area had the fastest-growing senior population in the country, with the number of residents older than 65 increasing 60 percent, according to a Brookings Institute analysis of U.S. census data. The area’s “pre-senior” population between the ages of 55 and 64 increased 97 percent, the second-fastest rate in the country.

Over the next two decades, the over-65 population in Wake County is expected to grow by 163 percent, according to the state’s Division of Aging and Adult Services.

Such trends have helped spawn a growing array of senior programs and activities that are helping to redefine what it means to be retired in the Triangle.

“We’re all about busting stereotypes of what retirement looks like and that it can be one of the most satisfying aspects of your life,” said Tricia Inlow-Hatcher, director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at N.C. State University.

N.C. State’s Osher institute, and a similar institute at Duke University, offer noncredit courses, study trips and special events for people over 50. N.C. State’s program has 1,400 people participating in its programs each year, up from about 1,000 just five years ago.

Inlow-Hatcher said the benefits of having an engaged and active senior community extend far beyond just the people who find enjoyment in taking the courses her institute offers. There are also, for example, economic and health benefits that flow from having retirees remain plugged in.

“I think our society has so many negative stereotypes about older adults and don’t really think about them as being able to contribute in retirement,” she said.

Rules of engagement

Contributing in retirement hasn’t been a problem for Larry Tombaugh, 75, a former dean of N.C. State’s College of Natural Resources who retired in 2001. Tombaugh’s advice to others entering retirement is simple: “Have a plan, and be bold about that plan.”

Tombaugh had four goals when he retired: “One was to do some things that kept me aligned with my professional background. Two, I wanted to do some things that were completely different than I had ever done before. ... Three, I wanted to leave some space and time for my wife and I to travel internationally. And four, I didn’t want to get in her way. We’d been married 54 years. I didn’t want to screw that up.”

Tombaugh and his wife, Nancy, established so-called rules of engagement before he retired. She didn’t want him tagging along to the grocery store; he didn’t want her feeling obligated to go fishing with him.

“She continues to lead a pretty independent life. I do, too,” said Tombaugh, who lives in Cary. “We had worked that out in advance. That’s important.”

Tombaugh did some consulting and joined several boards in order to stay connected to his profession. Meanwhile, to try something totally new, he joined the Wake County Guardian ad Litem Program.

Guardians ad litem serve as court-appointed advocates for children who have been removed from their home because of abuse or neglect. For 10 years, Tombaugh interviewed children, their parents and teachers, and reported back to the judge on what he thought was best for the child.

“That I knew nothing about,” he said. “I’d never been in a juvenile court before. I knew nothing about the family services that are available. So that was a tremendous learning experience for me.”

Just as importantly, it kept his intellectual juices flowing.

“That intellectual stimulus is really important to keep going,” Tombaugh said.

Best-laid plans

Don Berg said a successful retirement is inevitably linked in part to one’s finances, and getting his finances in order before he retired at 65 was the most important thing he did.

“It’s really true of people of all ages,” said Berg, 82, who lives in North Raleigh. “They really have to focus on what it costs to be retired. And the time to do it is when they have a little disposable income and can make choices.”

As for the rest of your retirement planning, Berg said it’s important to be able to be open-minded and try new things the older you get. Berg had visions of what his retirment would look like, but they didn’t all happen.

“All these projects that I put off all that time, when it came time to retire and do it I had no time for them,” Berg said. “And I realized that other than one thing I wanted to get done, the reason I didn’t do them was to a large extent they weren’t worth doing.”

That one thing was to organize his home movies and send digital copies of them to his children.

In his early retirement years, Berg and his wife, Karen, traveled and played a lot of tennis. But when his back finally gave out, such activities filled up less time. A friend suggested he check out the courses offered by N.C. State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and Berg decided to take a course on 17th-century French drama.

Berg, who was an executive at Channel Master, a satellite dish and TV antenna manufacturer that had operations in Smithfield, admits he was never much of a student, and the course work he did do was all focused on business.

“I took this course and I loved it,” he said of the drama class. “That kind of got me introduced. One more led to all kinds of things. That fills a lot of my time.”

In September Berg will be taking two Osher courses, including one on the Shia revival in the Middle East.

“This is my third course related to Islam,” Berg said. “I’m Jewish, and it’s been an eye-opener to hear stuff that I’d never been exposed to.”

Not all of Berg’s new activities late in life have been focused on such weighty topics.

“I also, under great pressure from my wife, learned to play bridge,” he said.