THE MAGAZINE      October 2002
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Smart Practices

On Balance

The Secrets of Successful Aging: Planning for Retirement Years

Marcia Pennington Shannon

While you may be years away from retirement, it’s not too early to address your future. Why do some people find greater satisfaction in their "golden" years than others do? Many of these individuals planned for this stage of their lives.


My father-in-law, Fran, recently stepped down from the board of his local fire department. Serving on the board—which he did for 45 years—gave him the opportunity to contribute to his community; but it also gave him continuing meaningful activity following his retirement. Fran is now 87 years old and retired from his full-time job more than 20 years ago. He is still very much engaged with the world. He is my role model for successfully navigating the retirement years.

I’ve looked at the retirees around me and wondered why some seem to embrace these years so heartily after their full careers. What are their secrets to successful aging? Many individuals derive great satisfaction from their retirement years. In what ways are these people similar? Following are some of my findings. Perhaps these will prove beneficial to you as you plan for the future.

Having Healthy Lifestyles

Individuals with the most satisfying retirement years are in relatively good health, allowing for an active lifestyle. They have taken care of themselves by exercising and eating low-fat foods. And they began doing so years before retirement, so they could approach this stage in as healthy a state as possible. They’ve gotten regular checkups and taken care of problems before those problems became worse.

Seeing the Sunny Side

These individuals view their retirement years with energy and optimism. Where some see obstacles, they see challenges. They approach this as a time that offers more personal freedom, more options and more depth to relationships. They have planned for this stage of life, setting goals and figuring out strategies to meet those goals, just as they’ve done in the other stages of their lives, both professional and personal.

Building Sound Financial Footings

Financially, they have planned for more years than they might expect to actually live. Therefore, they aren’t forced to reduce their standard of living considerably. If need be, they began to reduce their financial needs well before retirement.

Staying Stimulated

Another key is that these individuals have—over the years—cultivated activities and interests that give them enjoyment, creative outlets and intellectual stimulation. It’s true that outside pursuits can reenergize you for work, as well as allow you to approach your work in a more creative manner. More importantly, these interests are clues to what activities you might enjoyably pursue once you retire.

For example, for years before his retirement, my father-in-law was an active member of the local nature center. After leaving his full-time position, he volunteered at the nature center’s farm and taught workshops to schoolchildren visiting the farm—a big change, and challenge, for a former vice president of an international instrument company.

Making Contributions

Those successfully navigating the retirement years also look for ways to "give back." In contributing to others’ good, individuals will often say, they don’t have time to become self-centered or self-absorbed (a too frequent by-product of not connecting with others).

Embracing the New

These individuals have a continuing curiosity—they take classes, go on trips or seek other outlets that keep their minds alert. They embrace the present and look to the future. They stay up on current events, look deeper at social concerns of the day and remain curious about the world around them. They stretch themselves. Fran and my mother-in-law, for example, have enjoyed taking classes through Elderhostel, an organization that plans combined travel and educational opportunities for individuals 55 and older.

Valuing Your Important Relationships

Lastly, these individuals know the importance of relationships. They have close relationships with spouses, children, grandchildren, siblings, friends and others. They made sure their relationships were strong, again, long before retirement, giving time and attention to the people close to them.

And they continue to make new friends. They look for opportunities to forge new relationships, especially with younger people. At the local fire department, Fran constantly interacted with the firefighters, and over time those younger people became part of his extended family.

A Lifetime’s Goal: Be All You Can Be

Growing older can be a daunting prospect. But while my father-in-law has been presented with difficult times, he has faired them well. Perhaps, at least in part, this is because he started to prepare for these years long before he actually retired. He did so by keeping himself physically fit, eating a healthy diet before it came into vogue, and cultivating interests, activities and relationships that would gratify him through the rest of his life. He’s shown me a great deal, including how to continue engaging in life and making it all you possibly can!

Marcia Pennington Shannon ( is a principal in the Washington, DC attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is co-author of Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent (ABA 2000).


  • The Lawyer’s Guide to Balancing Life and Work by George W. Kaufman. ABA Law Practice Management Section, 1999.
  • How to Retire Happy by Stan Hinden. McGraw-Hill, 2000.