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6 Tips for Facing Early Retirement as a Chronically Ill Young Adult

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In December of 2013 I was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary hypertension. Although my symptoms came on quite quickly, I was only diagnosed once I was in severe right-sided heart failure and required supplementary oxygen 24/7 a day. Months prior to my diagnosis I had finally started my first adult job after years of pushing tea and cupcakes. This was not as fun as it sounds, and finding a job with a fine arts degree in a tech city is no easy feat.

I went back to work about six months after my diagnosis, which in hindsight, was way too soon to return to work. I was eager to return back to the job I loved, interact with people and feel like I was contributing to society again. More than that, I wanted a distraction from what was going on in my life. I managed to work part-time a few months short of a year, but realized I was in no condition to work. Unfortunately, it became clear that the stress and physical demands of working was too much for me and I had to give up my newly found career.

So aloha  welcome to the island. Grab your beverage of choice and your favorite Hawaiian print shirt. (If you don’t have one yet, now is the time to invest in one!) As such, at the age of 27 I had to retire, and I have been retired now for nearly a year. 

I wanted to share what I have learned in the past year about being retired in my 20’s. Retiring as an early adult is uncommon. Therefore, very little support and information is available for this kind of transition.

1) Netflix and nap

Chances are if you have a chronic illness or a condition that is preventing you from working, you will need some down days. Don’t feel guilty for needing some time to take it easy on your body; this is part of the reason why you are no longer working. If your body is telling you you need a down day, reach out and take it. Take naps as needed. I know my body needs extra TLC compared to most my age because it works so much harder just to do simple tasks (like breathe.) 

It is okay to find a good show on Netflix and slowly marathon your way through. Just be sure that watching “iZOMBiE” isn’t the only thing you do for a month straight. Although the majority of your family and friends will be at work or at school during the day, it is still important to use and limit your TV time wisely.

2) Stay sharp

According to a study found here, 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after university. After I stopped working for a bit, I noticed I no longer felt as mentally sharp. In order to try and maintain my brain, I read several books a month and write.

Books have been a great source of entertainment for me. Fictional books can allow you escape reality (if only for a moment). Inspiring and self-help books can help you cope and find hope. Trashy memoirs are usually an easy read and thoroughly enjoyable.

If you want to continue to learn on an educational level, you can always find books in your area of interest. iTunes also offers “The Open University” which has free lectures and content on various subjects. If you are really ambitious in continuing learning, you can try and create your own lesson plans which is a great way to still set goals and deadlines for yourself. (Some of us type-A personalities really miss having that kind of structure.)

Books and lectures aren’t the only way to stay sharp. You can always find activities that incorporate working out the brain muscle in a way that feels more like play. Puzzles, word searches and logical/spacial thinking workbooks are all a great way to keep that hamster in your brain on the wheel.

Documentaries also available on Netflix and YouTube for those days where you want to learn from the comfort of your couch and sweatpants.

3) Creative outlet

Creative outlets are important to both develop and hold onto during your transition to retirement. Hobbies and interests are often things we naturally enjoy doing. Sometimes illness might take away your ability to do certain activities you previously enjoyed doing. As such, you may find yourself on the hunt for new interests and hobbies.

It is really important to maintain a creative outlet. Being creative and having hobbies will still provide you with a sense of being able to accomplish a goal. I know that when I stopped working I felt a sense of loss. How could I accomplish anything if I didn’t have deadlines and the demands of an office to meet? I learned to set my own goals, and to create my own accomplishments. Sometimes my goal might be to do one small drawing in a day, or to work on writing an article.

Having a creative outlet can also have many beneficial side effects. It may help reduce stress and anxiety.

Drawing and writing aren’t the only ways to have a creative outlet or hobby. Hobbies can range from crafts, scrapbooking, sewing and playing music, to volunteering, playing cards and cooking!

4) Keep moving

It is very important to keep as active as possible. Unfortunately, some chronic illnesses can make it difficult to stay active. Pulmonary hypertension, for example can cause disability as it leaves people breathless. It also has the potential to cause dangerously low oxygen saturations. As such, it is recommended that you speak to your doctor to discuss the best way for you to stay active.

I am disabled due to having pulmonary hypertension, but try to stay as active as possible. I will try to walk at least a mile each day. Walking on flat land is easier for me, so if the weather sucks or I am having a bad symptom day, I will walk around the house until I reach the mile mark. I also try to get up to walk for 5 or 10 minutes if I have been sitting for an hour.

If walking without a destination sounds boring to you, you can always go to the mall or to a museum. Both provide climate controlled environments with flat land (and elevators if you are unable to do stairs).

In addition to walking, I try to stay active by doing a 20-minute session of yoga or Pilates from the comfort of my own home. There are great and affordable apps for yoga and Pilates, and there are also free videos on YouTube as well. Depending on your abilities, you may be able to adapt these works out by doing chair yoga.

5) Treat Yo’ Self

Ah, the catch phrase that might ruin this generation (and my bank account). It is very important to take care of yourself. Try to get enough sleep. Eat as healthy as possible, but also know when it is okay to cheat. Bottom line, you should be able to feel like you can enjoy your retirement. We shouldn’t be punished for not being physically capable of working.

Serena smiling in front of a wax sculpture of Katy Perry at a museum.
Serena in a wax museum.

Make plans for whatever adventures you are able to do. This can range from trying a new cafe, going to a new museum or trying a weekend get away. Find ways to make yourself smile. It can be as simple as putting a bird feeder outside of a window.

6) Find yourself

It can be very difficult to retire during what should be the prime of someone’s life. Even older people have a difficult time adapting to the transition of retirement because of how heavily careers and professions are weighed in with our perception of ourselves. In order to get to know someone, we often ask, “what do you do?”

While many of us are, or were very passionate about our careers, I have learned jobs are usually on the more superficial layer in terms of defining someone. For example, if someone heard what my former title was, they might assume I studied business. I never took a business course in my life. (It was all learned through pushing cupcakes, baby!) My real passion has always been being creative. I went to university for fine art (drawing, painting and sculpture), but now I use freelance writing as a form of being creative. So my former career did not really define me, and my current retired status doesn’t really define me either. I have always been a very hard worker, and very career driven (hence why I started a blog a few months after facing a heavy diagnosis.)

Facing retirement so young can certainly be challenging. I still have my days where I question my self-worth because I can no longer contribute in the ways I used to, or desire. However, I am proud of myself for having such a big obstacle and still accomplishing everything I have through freelance writing. My diagnosis, as cheesy as it sounds, has taught me a lot about myself, and even other people in my life. It has also pushed me to continue to try and find myself and be the person I want to be despite everything.

Follow this journey on The PHight or Flight Project

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Originally published: May 31, 2016
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