Real Life

How the truth about retirement was a scary wake-up call for Kristin and her family

Seeing her dad struck down, the caring daughter and her mum took action
Photos: Amalia Osborne

It was supposed to be a relaxing first day of retirement for John Murphy, enjoying a leisurely lunch out. Until out of nowhere the longtime lawyer collapsed at the café table. He was rushed to hospital unconscious, leaving his wife Di and daughter Kristin Sutherland terrified he wouldn’t survive.

While ICU doctors couldn’t pinpoint the cause of his condition, a nurse told the family John was one of several recent retirees admitted to hospital that week with unexplained health complications.

“They did a raft of tests and couldn’t find anything wrong with him,” recalls Kristin, 47. She never forgot the nurse’s startling comments.

“She said, ‘You’re the fifth one this week who has come in here just retired. Two, including you, have walked out and three left in body bags.’”

Several scary weeks followed for the tight-knit family as they grappled with John’s mortality. It was a time they thought he would be finally relaxing and enjoying life at 62, after a successful 40-year law career.

“It took us a long time to get over the shock,” admits Kristin. “We thought he had died, but it was actually psychological.

“Dad remembers running along the beach after coming home from hospital. He was thinking, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me physically, I can walk and run, but I’m not needed any more.’ Being a lawyer was very much who he was.”

This experience and the nurse’s insight highlighted to Kristin how much others were desperately struggling with the retirement transition.

Through anecdotal evidence and lots of research, Kristin discovered while people are told to plan financially, often little thought goes into how they will spend their time and what will make their life meaningful. And as her family discovered, this can have dire consequences.

Di and John married in 1972.

Solving the issue

Committed to finding a solution, Kristin and her mother Di founded Smart Retirement. An online course teaching and empowering people to prepare for a fulfilling life after work.

“We have worked with so many people who have all the money they need to be happy in retirement. Yet, they are miserable because they haven’t prepared and developed what they need to have a sense of worth and purpose.”

Referencing international studies, Kristin says loneliness and a lack of a strong social network can have the same negative health impacts as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“But we can change that by being prepared,” she enthuses.

The course, launched in August 2020, was trialled in conjunction with the University of Auckland, with 20 graduates having their psychological wellbeing monitored at the start and end of the programme. Kristin enthusiastically shares some graduates had a 27 percent increase in happiness as measured by the Ryff’s Psychological WellBeing Scale.

The mother-daughter duo have also released their method of planning for retirement in a new book, Dare to Retire Free.

Returning to the example of her dad, Kristin says early retirement turned out to be the wrong decision for him.

“He realised he wasn’t ready,” she says. “He hadn’t even thought of what he would do on day one. So he ended up going back to work. First he spent a few months doing odd jobs. He washed cars and worked in a pie shop just to feel like himself again. Then he eventually started a business. Businesspeople like him often attach everything they do and have to their work identity. This includes their friendships and social networks.’

The family (from left), John, Jake, Kristin, Di and Hamish, on holiday in Australia in 2012.

Looking to the future

Now aged 79, John is healthily and happily retired again.

“He has his family around him and grandkids,” tells Kristin. “He goes every Saturday to watch my son play soccer and he loves reading. I never saw him read a book in my childhood.”

For her own retirement, Kristin wants to complete all of the Great Walks of Aotearoa, and also spend lots of time camping and trekking.

“I hope I’m healthy enough to continue doing the things I love, but if I’m not, I’ll be planning for other passions,” she tells, adding she’s inspired by her business partner and mother.

At 74, Di describes herself as in a period of refinement rather than retirement, but after a long and varied career in teaching, tourism, health management and local government to name a few, she’s thriving being back in business, looking after her grandsons Hamish, 15, and Jake, 12, and painting, playing golf and the saxophone.

And while Kristin is not yet 50, she’s adamant it’s never too early to start preparing for retirement.

“Most people spend more time helping plan their children’s weddings than their own retirement, but you’re preparing for 25-30 years. It’s worth putting some time into that.”

To start planning for your retirement, visit smartretirement.co.nz

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