MoneyLine: An age-old question

Monday, October 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Money isn't key to retirement, an author says
There's more to retirement than just money, says author Ralph Warner. If you focus during your working life only on saving for retirement, and neglect family, friends and your own health, your retirement will suffer.

"Money . . . doesn't necessarily have much to do with it," Warner told a meeting of the Society of Business Editors and Writers in Tampa, Fla.

Is he right? To find out, I asked Catherine A. Davis. She ought to know.

When I dropped by her white shingled Victorian house in Middletown last week, she had just finished waterproofing her deck.

She couldn't talk for long. She was preparing for a trip soon with her cousin. Betweentimes, she planned to drive to Providence to attend a candidates' forum.

Mrs. Davis is 67. She's a retired federal government employee, a civilian health systems specialist who worked with the Navy. She has a federal pension, plus Social Security retirement benefits earned by her late husband, James, with whom she raised five children.

She's not poor, but she isn't rich, either. A big chunk of her income goes toward keeping up her house, built in 1895. If she did all the maintenance her house demanded, she'd probably be broke. "The house needs constant care," she says with a sigh. So she does some of the work herself, has relatives and professionals do some, and lives with the rest.

If she had a paying job, there'd be more money for the house, and probably some left over so she could travel more often. But she doesn't want to be tied to a regular job, she says. "I've been offered jobs. I've turned them down."

Besides, there's too much else to do. An aged relative lives nearby, whom she often visits. There's golf, which she took up two years ago. ("I had to quit tennis because of my shoulder.")

And then there's her volunteer work, mainly with a health insurance advisory program run by the state Department of Elderly Affairs.

"She's a wonderful resource for us," said William J. Speck, chief of information for the state agency. "She's energetic, bright, and has a lot of expertise."

She was especially helpful last year, explaining health insurance options to retirees who were about to lose coverage when UnitedHealthcare of New England withdrew its Medicare HMO from Aquidneck Island, Speck said.

She also lectures to groups for Aging 2000, a nonprofit agency that focuses on health-care options for people on Medicare, the federal health insurance program that's mainly for retirees. (Aging 2000 honored her last year as its volunteer of the year.)

Why does she bother? "There is a fulfillment to helping somebody . . . I have the knowledge, and I know the systems, and a lot of people don't understand the systems."

Does she agree with Warner, the 59-year-old author of Get A Life: You Don't Need A Million to Retire Well (Nolo; 336 pages; $24.95)? Yes and no.

For lots of retirees, she said, money is a critical issue. "There are people in Rhode Island who have to decide whether they're going to have dinner tonight or have their medication. [These] are poor people," most of whom rely on Social Security benefits as their sole source of income, she said.

"Some people can't get a life, either financially, or because of their health, or the health of a spouse. There are people who are stuck," she said.

As for the others? Well, there's really no excuse -- no reason to just sit around moping. "I think a lot of people make themselves miserable when they get old," Mrs. Davis said. There are other things to focus on.

And that's just what Warner is trying to say. The news media and the investment industry preach that we must invest obsessively during our working years, and save an impossibly large sum to ensure a successful retirement.

Warner argues that saving a reasonable amount is important. But we shouldn't forget to focus on other things that will make our lives more enjoyable and fulfilling in retirement: our health, spiritual life, relationships with family and friends, and a full plate of interesting things to do, he said. He quotes the famed actress Sarah Bernhardt: "It is only by spending oneself that one becomes rich."