Making a transition

The Retirement Zone: Occupying a different kind of space

Our exit from the workforce heralds our re-entry and splashdown into a domestic life we likely have never experienced before in its entirety.



The Final Frontier.

No, not the celestial, Star-Date, Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor kind. I’m talking about the space we occupy and the one we once occupied.

Not that there aren’t new worlds and new civilizations to explore, not that you can’t boldly go where you haven’t gone before. But, and I’m mixing pop-culture metaphors here with a nod to Rod Serling—in retirement, you’re now traveling in a different dimension.

There’s the signpost up ahead. Welcome to The Retirement Zone.

We’ve talked about a lot of the changes that the departure from practice engenders. But most of the issues covered have been doc-centric, so to speak. The things we have to deal with personally. Our exit from the workforce heralds our re-entry and splashdown into a domestic life we likely have never experienced before in its entirety.


There’s a whole lot of it now. A gas has no problem, destined as it is to expand to fill it. We’ve waited our whole career to have it – now, how do we pull off that same expansion trick? Slowly, carefully and with great respect to the other inhabitants in our orbit, I think. 

It’s a time to live out lifelong dreams and go on postponed adventures. It’s a time to learn new things, take up new hobbies or acquire a new skill (mastering the TiVo remote or finally figuring out how to silence iPhone notifications after bedtime doesn’t count).

Things to consider

If you’ve left a busy practice, you will likely need a transition period. You won’t be an unwelcome guest at home all day, but DO NOT start off the first morning of retirement by asking, “So, what are WE going to do today?”

If you’re still working, consider taking an extended vacation – four weeks was my benchmark. It’s a good dip in the pool. If you find yourself itching to get back to the office or the O.R. by week two, your timing may not be right. If you find yourself saying, “Wait a minute.  You mean I could live like this from now on?” Well, then, there you go.

One of the great joys in retiring is the immense flexibility it allows you. The liberation from schedules is a gift. Imagine Sisyphus waking up one morning to find the boulder still at the top of the hill. It’s kind of like that.

There are trips, family visits, shared activities with friends, but there’s still a lot of downtime one must consider. For many, if not most of us, our spouses or significant others have spent much, if not most, of their time and energy not just building, but sustaining a life that afforded us the freedom to do the job we (hopefully) loved. A feat we might have taken for granted or at the very least underestimated. Our sudden re-injection into that hard-won equilibrium will not go unnoticed.

Another thing to consider is that as a physician, our role usually kept us at the center of attention. Most things orbited around us. Our needs were attended to, our orders were followed and our wishes often granted. Most of us also had staff to run interference for us, plan our day and keep us on track and on time. Work, for all its headaches and stresses, did have its perks.

Get ready to live without them. And if you’re a personal validation junkie, best prepare yourself for an abrupt and very possibly painful period of withdrawal.

I think that while practicing medicine is a juggling act (often with torches and/or chainsaws), retirement requires more of a balancing act. Even if you possessed the fabled work-life balance, you’re likely to find that your center of gravity has now shifted markedly.

Fill your space

I personally have found great satisfaction in the small tasks. Never did the Honey-Do list get so Honey-Done. I found I could stop doing the math, trying to figure out how to squeeze everything into the spaces between cases, patients, rounds, meetings or calls days and nights. I’ve written elsewhere about a backpack you can’t take off. Well, now you can.

But retirement also forces a kind of reckoning. What is your life really about? What truly brings you happiness? At heart, who exactly are you when you’re not Dr. Somebody anymore?

We’ve all known colleagues who avoided leaving the hospital or the office, even when they could. The work is satisfying, but the patients are inherently a bottomless well of need – and the affection and gratitude that so many of them return can be intoxicating. I knew a physician who bragged he routinely spent more hours of the day at work than any two of his colleagues combined. I thought he was crazy and always suspected he somehow dreaded the normalcy of home life. I doubt this is most of us. But one imagines that for this group, the prospect of retiring is likely terrifying.

So take a hint from the upper right corner of the periodic table. Medical and surgical practices tend to expand to take up all your available space. Retirement is the time to take it back. But try to remember that, unlike the cosmos, that space is finite. You’ve shared it with a spouse or partner, children, family and friends for decades. Be mindful of suddenly claiming their space as your own.

Find something that keeps you engaged intellectually and active physically. Something that you can do for periods on your own. There are literally a million things you never had time to do or learn. Now you have it.

Have a plan

I’ve said before that retirement means you no longer need a schedule. But, make no mistake, you do need a plan.

 Our whole lives, we’ve been task-oriented and goal-directed. We’re achievers. That doesn’t have to change when you stow away the stethoscope or scalpel. I’m in the process of taking a series of boating courses, including advanced marine navigation. My ultimate goal is to learn celestial navigation – not because I’ll ever need it or use it, but just for the sheer pleasure of mastering it. I also happen to think I’d look rather dashing toting a sextant, but I could be wrong about that.

So whether you choose to turn your gaze up at the stars or down at the good earth (one of my med school classmates became a master gardener in retirement), remember what Thomas Edison said, “We don’t know one-millionth of one percent about anything.” That leaves an awful lot of things out there to keep us busy, and to keep us learning.

There are still challenges to face and problems to solve. But nobody’s life or well-being is likely to depend on whether you figure them all out or not, nor is anyone going to sue you if you get it wrong. And, with the possible exception of cold nuclear fusion, there are YouTube videos to help you! Fortunately, retirement has no maintenance of certification requirement, either. So enjoy.

Oh, and while you’re at it – live long and prosper.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

The pros and cons of staying involved in medicine after retiring

Pack your retirement go-bag now


  1. Phil Brewer

    3/4 OF THE WAY in my first year of retirement. Not wanting to go back to the rigors of emergency medicine but missing those moments of satisfaction that came from being appreciated for my efforts. I have replaced this to some extent by becoming a volunteer ESL tutor. I am making a big difference in the life of a person who, like my grandparents once were, is a newcomer to our country and culture. A couple of weeks ago during our Zoom tutoring session she said, “You know, you are a legend in my house.” I just beamed.

  2. Bill Delp

    I am also about 3/4 of the year into my retirement. My wife and I finally got to take that long vacation. We spent 8 week in a travel trailer seeing the American west. Having our rolling hotel room was really nice. Another shorter trip is scheduled. I am starting to do didactics with a Family Med Residency a few hours a month. Lots of yard work now and a few projects around the house are keeping me busy. I am beginning to get used to this new life.

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