May 30, 2023

The Golden Ticket

Natalie Ku, MD

Similar to Charlie, undeterred in his hopeful search for a magical ticket to the Wonka Chocolate Factory, all working generations await to inherit the kingdom of their next chapter in life. The promise of a wondrous, unique adventure lies in store for the deserving retirement neophyte (aka, the Golden Years). The name alone is incredibly enticing and with good reason.

I understand the term “Golden Years” was developed as a marketing tool to sell the Sun City retirement community in 1959, combating the postwar belief that retirement was societal banishment and to be avoided. Following the clever coupling of those two simple words, retirement and everything associated became a sweetly anticipated reward, coveted by everyone, young and old. Retirement brought emerald golf links, stately tennis courts, sandy beaches, shimmering sunshine and a throng of new retired friends embracing you as you entered the fold. The ultimate Nirvana. Or is it?

A search for “what to do in retirement” on Google generates roughly 1,200,000,000 results in about 0.51 seconds. This is exactly the conundrum. Over six decades ago, the minting of the term “Golden Years” sold a singular, colorful fantasy to fill the bleak void of losing a lifetime of purpose, heralded by sharing a last supper with your comrades as they send you into the night with a plaque of appreciation. Fast forward to 2023, and the finale still looks familiar. Just one day before the retirement party, you were cranking on the reading list or busting through procedures as the radiologist or IR doc on service. Tonight, you are: What?

The answer can be vague and carefree for some, bristling under the weight of discovering a new purpose: “The sky’s the limit, anything I want.” Or the answer can show single-minded devotion: “Swim and cook every day.” Perhaps it can reflect a quirky, commendable aspiration: “Attend mime school and entertain kids in the pediatric ward.” Or it can blend a mishmash of interests and passions, picked up along the way during life: “Read a book a day, summit one mountain per year, resume the harpsichord, cobble shoes, join the theater, visit Mongolia, build a sailboat, learn to fly a plane and go back to college.”

For some, slamming the door shut on a long-term relationship with radiology or IR that was profoundly developed over many hard-earned years is impossible overnight. For them, pursuing more of the same is the solution: Returning to work for a while in a reduced capacity as a transition period. After that, they absorb the time by venturing onto the remaining possibilities, numbering between one and a billion.

For some of the newest colleagues who have valiantly assumed Charlie’s mantle, the thought of next steps may understandably generate a degree of uneasiness, after a lifetime serving in the medical profession. Take solace in this notion when pondering your next suitable, “What” — no matter the path of choices taken, smooth coasting or stumbling, when you finally take a swan dive or belly flop into the River of Milk Chocolate, you own the key to the Chocolate Factory and all the magic inside is now yours to imagine and shape.