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GAY AND GRAY: Brinkers Face Retirement

Posted Jun 24 2009 12:24pm

[ EDITORIAL NOTE:Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams ( bio ) in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here. ]

Ronni describes "elders" as the age group that begins at 55 and goes on up as long as we last. Sometimes I wonder about that; I'm pretty sure the experiences and concerns of folks at the young end of the spectrum are quite different than those of some older folks.

I'm at the younger end myself, 62 next month. And lately I've come to think my set ought to be called "Brinkers." Why? Because so many of us are at the brink of the change usually called "retirement," voluntary or involuntary, desired or feared. For this month's column, I thought I'd share some of the conversations I've found myself in about these changes over the last few months.


* * *

I have a friend whose partner and soul mate of the last 40 years recently died. I try to walk for exercise with her as often as we can find time.

She's lucky: though not quite 65, she left an intense job with a pension and a severance deal that gives her excellent health insurance until she gets to Medicare eligibility. Almost every time she sees me, she asks anxiously, "You do own your house, don't you?" "Does your job give you health coverage?"

Reliable shelter and health insurance, that's what she thinks life boils down to these days.


* * *

My women's group has been meeting every six weeks for almost 30 years. We've seen each other through romantic ups and down, separations and re-couplings, moves, job changes, some lif- threatening illnesses, parents dying with and without our help - and now we're all in the Brinker age group, thinking about retirement.

At a recent gathering, we shared our thoughts:

• "I've always defined myself by my work. When I quit next year, who will I be?"

• "I just can't imagine not going to work every day. The idea scares me. But I am so ready..."

• "We've got gardens and animals. Farmers don't get to retire ..."

• "As you know, I've been on disability since my illness. I've always worked to rise in my profession, but I just don't care anymore. I don't ever want to go back to work. I have no trouble filling my days."

• "I think I've begun to retire and not quite admitted it. After this spring I won't teach anymore, though I've started a small business and I'm excited about that. Lately I've been learning new computer skills and I want to share them..."

• "I don't want to retire. I've got work to do. I think they'll let me stay on."

The range is wide, but we all feel we are teetering on the brink of something big.


* * *

A recently retired friend took me to dinner. He's a Brinker too. For almost 30 years he worked for the Sierra Club, first arranging outdoor experiences for inner city kids, later in the fundraising department.

Early on, he helped launch Gay and Lesbian Sierrans as a sub group within the Club. There was some opposition at first - why should the gays have their own affinity group? My friend pointed out that straight singles had a group, so why not gays who wanted to be in the wilds together? GLS became one of the Club's more active components.

He had thought he'd have to hang on until eligible for full Social Security (that's 66 or later from most Brinkers.) But the Club offered a buyout, including health coverage until Medicare clicks in, so he's happily out of there.

He's considering moving to a remote area. After all he's an outdoor guy. I wondered, did moving to the country worry him?

"Well, I knew I needed a new stove in the cabin. I went to one store and they told me all about ignition systems and pressure valves and so on. I went to another and the first thing the salesman said was, 'We have a choice of this shade or that color...' So I guess I found my store."

No, he's not worried.


* * *

Hey, isn't this supposed to be a Gay and Gray column? What's the gay content besides the anecdote about the last guy? There isn't much - or nearly all of it is about being gay, depending on how you choose to read it.

All the individuals quoted except the first one are gay. But our anxieties as Brinkers reflect more about our economic and health status than our sexuality. Perhaps it is distinctive that all these people never expected to retire based on the shared resources of a partner; they knew from early on that they'd never inherit anyone else's Social Security or pension because the world would not recognize their partnerships (and that is mostly still true), that they had to built what security they could through their own careers.

And they've mostly been lucky -- they've lived in times and places where they could succeed. It is not at all clear that future generations of Americans will enjoy such opportunities.


* * *

So you've talked about your friends - what kind of Brinker are you?

Me? I'm a Brinker with "retirement lust"! Actually I've been in that condition for years. The work I do, episodic advocacy and political campaigns, is periodically very intense - and then there is down time. I call the down time (with a label stolen from that misogynist thriller writer John MacDonald) "taking my retirement on the installment plan."

This is not a rhythm that works for everyone, but I'm currently very ready for one of the installments - and not quite ready to fall over into the real thing. We'll see...

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Frank M. Calabria: Sunday Dinner with My Aunt Bessie and Her Flatulence Machine.

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