Sick of the Beltway slog and worn down by bureaucratic shackles, Lloyd Feinberg retired in 2011 as manager of USAID’s program for conflict victims. His wife’s effort to stop working once and for all proved to be more of a challenge.
Betsy Marcotte had trained as an economist and spent decades at government contractors managing complex projects. A financial adviser had assured the Great Falls couple that they’d saved enough money, but something prevented her from shutting the work door for good. It didn’t help that early in his new life, her husband experienced knee and back pain and fell into a funk.
“I wanted to retire early,” Marcotte says. “I had tried to retire”—she calculates—“three times?”
“Four,” her husband corrects.
“My boss would call and say, ‘I just need some help. Couldn’t you just come back?’”
“After the second time, they stopped having retirement parties,” Feinberg, 73, chuckles.
“We were workaholics in the true Washington sense,” says Marcotte, 65.
For nearly ten years, she reveled in that last job as a senior vice president with DAI, supervising development projects for the US government in more than 50 countries. She made sure that new irrigation systems watered the fields of Afghanistan. She guided farmers to raise apricot trees and tomato plants on fields once ablaze with red and pink poppies grown to make opium. She ensured that the roads were paved, because farmers can’t make money if their fruit turns to pulp when it’s ferried on rutted roads.
Still, home life pulled at her. She wanted to take another bicycle trip with her husband, and she knew she needed to get to Ohio, where her aging parents grew sicker. So she would quit, and be miserable: “I didn’t have a game plan. Everybody was working. Washington is such a driven place. I lost my purpose.” When the firm called, she’d demur, then buckle and return. Until she’d retire again.
Washingtonians spend so much of their lives trying to succeed that retirement can seem like defeat. The city attracts intense, determined people who have run at top speed their entire lives. Their desire to succeed, to change the world, doesn’t die when they hit age 65. Many have the savings and investments to quit, but they don’t, worried they’ll miss the action, their jobs are too important, they won’t matter anymore.
“Part of retirement is financial planning, and part is emotional. Part is prepping for when you are no longer going to work so you don’t flunk retirement,” says Steve Cassaday, CEO of Cassaday & Co., a financial adviser in McLean. “It’s not getting bored, stir-crazy, jumping back into a job because it’s the only way to occupy your time.” Cassaday says that through workshops he offers and life coaches, many clients learn what brings them joy and who they want to be with to experience that happiness. “Retiring is doing what you want, with whom you want, whenever you want to do it.”
Nancy Schlossberg, a professor emerita of counseling at the University of Maryland, says there are three major shifts in retirees’ post-work lives: changes in identity, relationships, and purpose. They need to compose new definitions for themselves when they’re no longer able to say, for example, “I work at the World Bank.”
“Some people have a hard time filling in the blank,” Schlossberg says. “People in positions of power and authority or those who are used to traveling a lot for work may have this experience.” The author of Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose, Schlossberg helps clients create psychological portfolios for the period after they retire. One tactic is to have them pull out a business card and visualize what a new card would say.
Relationships of all kinds change—not just those with coworkers who will no longer join the retiree for lunch but also with spouses and children. As a counseling psychologist, Schlossberg says she gives people cognitive maps of what they’re going through and offers them coping strategies: “It doesn’t take the misery out of change—it takes away some of the mystery.”
As with the financial part, a satisfying retirement involves planning. The field has grown so big that therapists, life coaches, colleges, and financial planners offer workshops on how to prepare emotionally and intellectually. Theresa Gale, a transitions coach in Columbia, works with Cassaday’s clients and others to help them envision what their new lives will look like—a process that can take months.
“The people most miserable in retirement don’t have a vision as to what they’re moving towards,” Gale says. “With the boomers, there’s so much to contribute after retiring. It’s unlimited. But that unlimitedness makes it feel out of control.” In her eight-week classes, she urges participants to design a plan around values, interests, goals, and desires. She encourages people to build friendships that will support them during that transition.
Sometimes a plan can just be permission to relax. One of Cassaday’s clients, Jamie Reuter, spent his last 17 years working at Georgetown University, finishing as a senior administrator. His wife, Janet Heininger, a foreign-policy expert who has worked on Capitol Hill, was nervous about his hanging around the house with nothing to do. With a coach, Reuter crafted a plan to volunteer and travel. “There was an expectation [by others] that I was supposed to do something good,” says Reuter, who has a doctorate in public-health administration. The coach “gave me permission to not do stuff.”
She also helped him understand that even though he wanted to take it easy, he needed to surround himself with new friends. He and his wife bought a house in North Carolina’s Outer Banks and built a social circle. Says Reuter: “We know everyone.” The planning brought great dividends. “I tend to be the sort of guy who just feels confident that I can roll with whatever life presents me. In retrospect, I’m not sure I was as prepared as I thought, and in that sense it was very helpful.”
Marcotte’s parents died in 2010 and 2011, during a time when she was flying often to Afghanistan to meet with farmers and USAID officials. Her brother was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2014. The events were alarms, and she talked to her therapist to figure out what she truly desired in life.
“There was so much I missed,” she says, her voice wavering. “I didn’t want to die and regret that I hadn’t been able to do what I wanted to do. What is a tragedy is to die when you’ve just been doing work your whole life. That was a key thing in the therapy. Life is so precious, so short, so incredibly fragile, and I didn’t want to lose it behind a desk, even though I loved what I did.”
She and her husband enlisted Joel Cundick and Philip Corcoran of Savant Capital’s McLean office. A six-month process set financial priorities—a review of their insurance and wills, a reworking of their estate plan, revisions to their investment portfolio, and models of possible financial setbacks. They also included the couple’s children from their earlier marriages in some of the planning. With greater clarity, Feinberg and Marcotte became confident their savings would carry them through their elderly years.
“It was typical of Washingtonians,” Corcoran says. “They’re at the top of their game in their fifties and sixties. So it’s tough to leave.”
Next, the planners teased out the couple’s most meaningful life goals. They talked about their lifestyle, the places they loved to spend time. At one meeting, the two mentioned they’d been to Rhode Island, where Feinberg had been raised. The planners asked if they’d want to retire there.
“It had never entered their minds,” Cundick says.
On a whim, Feinberg visited a brown-shingled, four-bedroom ranch house for sale near Narragansett Bay. He met the owners of a shop that builds and repairs lobster boats and sailing vessels. Feinberg, who cultivated rice in the Philippines during a Peace Corps stint, asked if he could apprentice. “I swore I’d never move back,” he says. “Never say never.”
The house, her husband’s contentment, and her brother’s death pulled Betsy Marcotte from Washington. She had prepared, too—spending lots of time meditating on a new existence, trusting that those days would fulfill her. “You’re letting go of a part of your life that’s given you everything, and that’s a pretty big leap of faith,” she says. “Somehow, it was a lot of work to just get comfortable with myself. What does that mean, ‘spending time with myself’?”
It’s morning in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, and Marcotte and Feinberg are heading out the door to tackle another busy day. “We’re just not getting paid,” he quips.
Marcotte sets off for yoga class and then will do a bit of cooking. Feinberg heads to an exercise class, followed by the boat yard. He might stop in to see his sole surviving aunt. “Sometimes I do some fly fishing,” he says.
“If you want to frustrate yourself,” she adds.
Marcotte volunteers several hours a week as treasurer of a community yacht club. “It’s a yacht-less club,” her husband says.
“Small boats,” she explains. A hundred fifty families in a sailing program.
“What a lucky thing,” she says. “And I have a purpose.”
This article appears in the December 2016 issue of Washingtonian.