Voices of Experience

Linda Cork, Professor of Comparative Medicine

Are there factors that played into your decision to retire that you would be willing to identify?

I haven't entirely decided to retire, but I wanted to step down as Chair. I think 15 years is long enough for anyone to be chair. Retirement factors I think about are:
Can I afford it? Since I didn't start a professional life until late, contributions to a retirement fund didn't begin until about 1976 . I was working almost entirely off grant funding; research salaries are often not as high as clinical salaries. As a single parent, I had two children to put through college by myself, so there wasn't a lot of saving until that was past. So, for me, availability of funds for retirement might have been a bigger issue than for some others.  But, individuals who have several children, aged parents, or other financial responsibilities also would have concerns about adequate retirement income. Retirement income also determines where and how you live. The Bay Area is expensive compared to many other areas, but if you have family here, this may be where you want to live.

What will I do with my time in retirement?  Some people are defined by their professional activities. Their families (mine included) wondered what they would do when they retired. This isn't a big worry for me, because I was a stay-at-home housewife for 11 years, and I found lots of interesting things to do then. I see no reason that it will be different now. My problem will be which ones to focus on? Will I be able to afford to do the things I like and will my health allow me to do them? Retirement may be harder for individuals whose sense of identity and self-worth is more closely tied to their professional life.

Are there issues specific to being a clinical faculty member - or a basic science faculty member - that affect the retirement decision?

For most of my career (before coming to Stanford) I worked as a basic scientist. At some point I think many basic scientists get tired of the ongoing struggle for funding, the parade of graduate students and postdocs and want to do something else. They don't make as much money as clinicians, so their retirement funds will be less. They may enjoy teaching but many feel that this is unappreciated and the compensation is sometimes hard to identify. Some go into administration and can be a great help to the institution, but not every institution appreciates this reservoir of talent and doesn't avail itself of it. Institutions often stereotype individuals based on what they are currently doing - not what they can do. Institutions sometimes simply don't bother to find out what a person knows or enjoys doing or what they have done previously. I think some basic scientists would like opportunities to do other things but just can't find the opportunity. Others cannot imagine doing anything but their science; for them "retirement" isn't even a consideration. The really difficult situations are those faculty who cannot obtain research funding, but still want to do research and can't.

For clinical faculty at some point seeing one more case of "X" no longer presents the same challenge and enjoyment it once did. I think some leave, because they want to give junior people the opportunities. Clinical faculty can also be valuable in administrative positions or as mentors to junior faculty, but how will that be compensated?  Some clinical faculty find their health, eyesight, or other physical abilities diminish with age, and this diminution limits their ability to practice clinical medicine. They may find it frustrating to be on the sidelines, or they may find other meaningful opportunities which utilize their talents and knowledge.

What activities are you engaged in now? Are there new opportunities or activities you have pursued since becoming emeritus?

I'm not emeritus yet. The first thing I plan to do when I step down as Chair is to deal with the archives of research and teaching materials that I have accumulated and send them to places that will use them. I have thought about going back and doing some research with former colleagues on projects that I started many years ago. Whether that will materialize, I don't know, or I may decide I don't want to go back to research at all.  I have also thought about volunteer work with organizations whose goals I support.

Lessons learned about the retirement process: what advice would you give to those considering retirement?  Is there anything you didn't know that you wish you had known?

I was fortunate to have attended a course on retirement planning when I was younger so I started thinking about retirement and how to fund it early on.  The earlier you begin planning retirement, the better.

Another key factor was my experience in doing research on Alzheimer's Disease for so many years, and watching and my family deal with my mother's Alzheimer's Disease. It was a pretty clear demonstration that 1) you cannot take your long term health, mobility, or cognitive status for granted, and 2) that unless you don't mind being a burden on your children (which I would find intolerable), you better think about how you are going to take care of yourself in the future- including if you have serious health problems, problems getting around, or vision problems. For me, that meant planning to buy into a Continuing Care Retirement Community. Others try to provide for this in other ways, and some simply refuse to think about it. But, a continuing care retirement community was my choice, and I am very comfortable with it. Unfortunately, many people think they can postpone the decision to enter a continuing care community, and when they decide it is "time", they may be refused admission because of health reasons. There are also people who simply deny they will ever need care or have health problems. That's a big mistake.

I wish I had spent more time actively managing my investments. The current downturn in the economy has not been good for me and also has affected many others. In retrospect, I might have made some better decisions than I did about how I allocated funds in my 401Ks.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Retirement is a sociological issue for an institution, and a personal issue for the individual. I think the University and its retirement programs could benefit from input from a geriatrician or a geriatric psychiatrist about the issues elderly people face. With that information they could develop programs that would be more supportive of retirement choices and the individuals who make them. For example, depression is a very common problem for the elderly, and suicide is often a result. With better information and planning some of the disappointments and concerns of aging could be avoided.

 I live in a community of older people (including some in their late 80s and early 90s), and I am impressed with how active and happy many of them are. This is a benefit of modern health care and good planning on their part. Unfortunately, there is also a significant number who have problems with their health, eyesight, their children, their spouses, or their spouses' failing health, etc.  The community where I live (like most others of this type) requires a financial review to be sure the residents can afford to live there, so my fellow residents and I are the fortunate (and pretty healthy) ones who can afford a supportive life style. For those with health, vision, or family problems, I can only imagine how challenging retirement would be if they also had seriously constrained financial resources as many people do. I know people in those circumstances, and it isn't pretty.

Interviewed by Dean's Office, 4/01/09