Why I'm Not Looking Forward to Retirement as a Person With Rheumatoid Arthritis

In less than two weeks I will be 40. Some of you are thinking, “She’s old!” and others are thinking, “She’s young!” What it means to me is I have hit a time of life when my peers and coworkers are talking about retirement. And cue, feeling old! I mean, nothing screams “adult” more than moving away from talking about the hottest concert tickets and bars to the hottest investments. And no, I don’t work for a start-up company where people retire at 40. I mean, people are having conversations about how to set themselves up and invest so that a comfortable retirement is achievable at retirement age.


And now, at almost 40, when I am sitting listening to my peers talk about retirement, I realize how different my life really is. There are some situations when you feel “sick and different.” This is one of them. I am one of the 1.5 million Americans living with rheumatoid arthritis. My first symptoms of RA showed up when I was 30 and at 31 I was formally diagnosed. I really had no idea what that meant for my future, but I did realize it was life-changing – only because my family doctor told me he was “sorry” after giving me my diagnosis. I’m pretty sure my doctor would not apologize if it didn’t mean “life-changing.”

I recently realized my idea of retirement was different than my peers and co-workers at a work lunch a couple of weeks ago. While celebrating a co-worker’s 20-year anniversary with the company, the conversation swiftly switched to retirement. That day I heard things like:

“I need to save enough to take me into my 90s. My family tends to live a long time.”

“When I retire, I will take up an activity so I don’t grow bored.”

“I can’t wait to travel whenever I want.”

Then the conversation turned to me, “Elaine, what are you looking forward to in retirement?” My heart sank. I am usually an active participant in conversations, but at that moment you could hear a plate drop in the restaurant. What I wanted to say in that moment wouldn’t fit in the celebratory spirit of the conversation. So, I shrugged my shoulders to get out of an uncomfortable situation quickly.

The real answer is I won’t retire like my peers will. I probably won’t have a retirement party with a cake. Retirement for people like me is when my body can no longer perform work tasks. My retirement will come when my hands are no longer able to type, when my mind is permanently exhausted from painsomnia, when my immune system is compromised to the point that being in a work environment is dangerous, when work stress begins to affect my physical health, and when my hips and knees can no longer sit at a desk. Those will be the obvious signs I will need to give up on my career. Retirement isn’t planned for people like me.

Not to be morbid, but my future plan is to be alive and mobile. I know the statistics. I know there is a real chance for heart and lung involvement. I know the possible side effects of the drugs I take. It is the stuff we patients know but about which we don’t want to really think. And honestly, I think more about my medical future than retirement. My thoughts go from, Will my new drug cocktail be “the one” to put me into remission? to Will the new drug I am on actually work like it is supposed to? Rather than retirement, it is the medical future about which an RA patient often thinks.

So do I think about my future? Yes. Do I think about retirement? No. My goal is to live now, travel now and do what I enjoy now. As long as my finances and health allow it, I will do it. I am not waiting until retirement to make memories because I am investing in my life now.

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Thinkstock photo via Peshkova.

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