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Finding His Heart in South Africa

When Randy May turned 50, he took a job in South Africa that has lead to a life of fulfillment, change, adventure and love.

Randy May never took the typical path. Early on in his social work career he realized that he enjoyed working closely with a team of people in mission-driven community organizations. In 2008, that desire took him to accepting a job as Deputy Country Director in Ethiopia working with an international HIV organization. He did well, and was later promoted and moved to South Africa. In 2012, he celebrated his 50th birthday by driving up to Kruger National Park with a colleague to enjoy the vast natural beauty of game park and the wildlife. “It was a lovely day.”

In 2014, Randy met his now husband, Walter. “It was such a surprise. I was 52 and wasn’t looking for love or a partner,” Randy said. “I was just living my life the way I wanted to. I was privileged to run into a really sweet guy.” They were married in May 2018.

Everything seemed to be going well, but in March of that year, Randy was called into a global meeting  of the organization and informed that the organization had lost much of its funding due to a change in administration and was cutting the US-base funded positions. “It made perfect sense,” Randy said. The organization wanted to prioritize keeping the field offices open so many of the management and administrative positions were eliminated, Randy explained.

Although Randy had a spousal Visa, he did not have a work permit. “Like many places, you need a work permit to get a job, but you need a job to get a work permit.”

Randy tried for a year to get a job there. “I tried, but being 56, I needed a salary in US Dollars so I could contribute to my Social Security and 401K after a career as a social worker.”

He and Walter had the difficult conversation and concluded that Randy needed to go back to the United States at get a job.  “I think that if we were much younger, it would have been really hard. But being at the finish line of work, it is time limited. I mean it’s still hard, but if it was open-ended, it would be even harder.” He returned to the U.S. in October 2019.

Walter needed to stay in South Africa to finish out his career. He had 26 years working for a bank and only a short time until he could retire. “Everyone retires at 60 there,” Randy said. Walter would work until 60 and then have a pension for the rest of his life.

So, in October 2018, Randy moved back to the U.S. He had been in Africa for over 11 years. “Everything I had here was in storage,” Randy said.

He moved back to Maine where he had friends and lived for 23 years before moving to Africa. “I applied for a job to work at the LL Bean call center during the Christmas season like every good Mainers does and I had done for two seasons in the past.” When not working, he volunteered at a local soup kitchen.

Luckily, by the end of December 2018, Randy was hired as the interim deputy director of a small, non-profit, supporting health systems in Haiti. “It was doing work that I love,” said Randy.

With his new job in place, Randy scheduled a quick trip to see Walter in South Africa. Then in February, he visited Cap-Haitien, Haiti for three-weeks to see first-hand how his work was affecting the residents of Haiti and to learn more about the organization.

“The organization I was working for was supporting local clinics and hospitals,” Randy said.  His job was to help them get training and equipment so the residents could get quality health care. “It was lovely. The people were very friendly,” Randy said.

Then COVID hit and Randy wasn’t able to go back to South Africa to see Walter. “It was hell. Thank goodness for Facetime and WhatsApp, but it wasn’t what we had bargained for,” Randy said.

“It was pretty intense, but we were confident in us,” Randy said. He said he is grateful that he didn’t lose any family members to COVID. “In perspective, we were inconvenienced,” Randy said.

Randy enjoyed his job in Maine, but knew it was an interim job. He also felt he needed to move closer to his mother in Indiana.

“I knew my mother was failing and wouldn’t be able to live independently,” Randy said. He began looking for jobs in Indianapolis so he could support his mother and his sister, who had to bear most of the responsibility of taking care of his mother.

He got a job with the Marion County health department doing HIV work. “I’d run away from Indiana in 1984 and never looked back,” Randy said. However, moving back proved to be a good experience.

He enjoyed his time in Indiana and enjoyed reconnecting with friends. “I enjoyed the work and planned to stay there working the five-year plan until our retirement,” Randy said. “I met a lot of great people there.”

Then, one day, somebody “pinged” him and said he should look at a job in Washington D.C.  The job was as the Director for HIV and Harm Reduction working with NACCHO, National Association of County and City Health Officials supporting over 3,000 health departments around the country.  His job would be focused on making sure people living with HIV and those at risk received the health care they needed. The job also included securing health care for those with viral hepatitis.

“It’s clearly focused on health equity. It’s a little farther removed from what I was doing in Indiana,” Randy said. However, Randy knew that he wanted to apply and he got the job.

“It’s humbling to be this farm kid from Indiana sitting in meeting in Washington D.C. where major decisions are being made,” Randy said.

“I am able to speak to the needs of local health departments,” Randy said. “It’s good work.”

Securing Employment After 50

Although, Randy admits that there is age discrimination, he credits the ability to get jobs after 50 is how he presents himself.

“I talk about what I do know, but I am open to new leadership and new ideas,” Randy said. “I think that openness helps.”

Randy also said he likes to do informational interviews. “I have to pay my bills, so I address that whether it’s working at LL Bean or whatever, but I also talk to people and say, ‘This is the type of work I want to do. Who in your community is doing this type of work?”

Randy said he does information interviews even before he is looking for a job. “It’s just old social networking,” Randy said. He said he uses LinkedIn and his contacts to find out who he should be talking to. “I really appreciate LinkedIn.   I’ve remained connected to a lot of the professionals I’ve worked with in Maine, Indiana, Haiti, South Africa and Botswana,” Randy said.

“It’s not passive. It’s about asking people to talk about their work,” Randy said. “Asking people for a half hour of their time.”

Using this technique, Randy got his job in Ethiopia. “In 2003, I liked my work, but I wanted to do something more. I knew I wanted to do international work,” he said.

“I was taking people to dinner and just doing informational interviewing,” Randy said. “I was saying, ‘This is the kind of work I want to do. What do you think?’”

“Lo and behold someone said, ‘I know someone doing that type of work.’” They connected Randy with someone and he did an informational interview. Even though there was nothing available at that time, the person said they would reach out to him when it was available. “They did and that’s how I ended up in Ethiopia.”

“I believe in that personal connection of meeting people,” Randy said.

Randy has even cold emailed people. He asked the person to talk to him about his organization. Randy said, “I know you don’t have any open positions, but that’s not what I am asking. I am asking for information about the organization. The person was so gracious and was happy to talk to me.” That email led to three other referrals and one eventually led to a job.

Early on in his career, Randy decided rather than look at the job title, he would look at the type of work the position was doing. “That has led me to lots of meaningful work experiences working with lots of wonderful people,” Randy said.

“I’m really grateful at 50 that I did something radically different and new. Living in Ethiopia in 2008 and learning Amharic and learning a different culture rejuvenated me,” Randy said.

“It opened up my world.”

Advice to Others

“People have to make choices and be pragmatic,” Randy said.

He said that many people are trapped because of health insurance. He said it would be great if Medicare age was lowered to 60 so people could explore other options including part-time work or volunteering.

“I really think it’s a shame we don’t institute a GAP year in our 40s,” Randy said. “You get into a track and it’s easy to keep doing the same thing. “It would be nice if people had a year to figure out what they want the rest of their work path to look like.”

He does encourage others to look for other jobs after 50 by finding out about companies they may want to work with and figuring out what makes them happy.

What the Future Holds

Randy is currently working on a five-year plan. In five years, Walter will be able to retire. “We agreed to look where I am financially and health-wise and where he is health-wise and we’ll make a decision,” Randy said.

He said he doesn’t really know what things will look like in five years. “We’ll decide where we are and discern our best decision then,” Randy said. He said he may decide to work another couple of years beyond that depending where he is with his career.

“Eventually, I will be moving home to South Africa,” Randy said. 

If you know anyone with who would make a good subject for my blog, please email me at ksparis15@gmail.com.

I’m Retired! What’s Next?

Now that I am officially retired, it’s time to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.

My husband and I started talking about my retirement over two years ago. He left his job and we began to envision what the rest of our lives would look like. Now, we have the freedom to find out.

I never thought I would feel comfortable with the word retirement. Retirement bring about images of water aerobics and 5:00 dinners. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not me. So I decided to embrace the word and give it a refreshed image. I’m in marketing, we’re all about re-imagining.

Two years ago, my husband and I started to prepare for my retirement and the next phase of our lives.

The first thing we did was sell my little Volkswagon Beetle convertible. I had it for over seven years and I loved it, but it was not a car we could travel around the country in. I was surprised how many people were sad when I sold my car. I admit, it was a hoot to drive, but an SUV was more practical. So, we bought a Mazda CX-5 and paid it off before I left.

The added benefit was that since it looks like every other car on the road, I had to learn my license plate.

Then we made sure to max out my 401K contributions. Sure the car payments and 401K contributions significantly cut down our monthly cash flow, but it was worth it. We knew it would help us create the life we wanted in the future.

I started noticing what other people were doing in retirement. That’s when I started my blog. I wanted to find out the path people took and why they made the decisions they made.

I’ve been so much fun telling people’s stories. Each one is so unique and each one helps me to put a piece in my own retirement puzzle. I’m not even sure what the end picture will be.

When people ask me what I was going to do in retirement, I say I going to drink lemonade and read books in the backyard. And I am. But I am also looking at all the opportunities available to me.

For example, I have been creating videos for people and businesses. These have been fun projects. I not only love helping people celebrate special events, but I also love the creative process of combining video, pictures and music.

I also have a podcasting gig. More about that later.

And finally, I am doing all the projects that I have been thinking about doing for years. My husband is already threatening to take away my coffee if I don’t settle down.

And I’m sure I will. It’s strange to think that I don’t have to fit everything I want to do into a weekend or an occasional day off. That I don’t have to sit in traffic worrying that I will be late to work or a meeting. I have time.

The most important thing I have learned from all my interviewees is that to have a successful retirement you have to find your passion. I’m working on that too.

For now, I will continue to find people who are working on their next chapter whether it be through love, work, moving or volunteering. I hope you will continue to join me.

As always, if you know someone who would make a good subject for me blog, email me at ksparis15@gmail.com.

What I’ve Learned… So Far

Interviewing others about making major life transitions after 50 has been the best research I ever could have done as I reimagine my own future.

Last year, with the help of my friends Bill and Bunny, I came up with the idea for this blog. I have been amazed, and continue to be amazed, that this couple made the decision to sell everything and move to Bonaire. Their bravery or craziness, inspired me to think about other friends who had major like changes after 50. I told their story in my first post.

Starting this blog has been one of the most fun and exciting adventures I have pursued in a very long time. I find that I love talking to people and telling their stories. Each one is so unique and almost everyone has told me that they didn’t think they are special and weren’t sure they had a story to share.

However, I have found that each person has something to teach me as I prepare for my own re-imagination into the world of retirement.

It’s challenging leaving behind a place I have worked for the past 15 years. As I prepare to leave, I reflect on all I have accomplished and all the people I have helped and those who have helped me along the way. I am trying to let go of the frustrations and failures and focus on the good so I can move on into the next phase of my life.

I tell people that from 1 to 30 years old, we are forming into the people we are going to be. From 30 to 60 years old, we concentrate on working, taking care of of spouses, children and/or parents. Now, from 60 to 90 years old, at least for me, is going to be about me and what I want to do.

So, my blog is research project as I graduate from a traditional work environment into whatever the rest of my life will be. As I interview people, I have discovered a few key tips to make the transition go more smoothly.

  1. Review Your Finances — Look at how much revenue you will have coming in after you transition. Talk to an expert if possible. Determine what expenses are necessary and what you can do without.
  2. Pay Down Your Debt — As one interviewee said, “Debt is like being a slave to the bank.” Every day you are working to pay that money back, plus interest. Be as debt-free as possible when you leave your full-time gig.
  3. Plan For Fun — If you put yourself on a restrictive budget, you will feel deprived. If you can’t manage fun on your retirement income, figure out a part-time gig that will help generate income. For Bridget in Curacao, that gig was opening up an Italian ice stand to serve tourist coming off the cruise ships.
  4. Plan for the Unexpected — Each one of my interviewees have had a setback. Many of them related to COVID. But they made it through, even though it wasn’t easy.
  5. Find Your Passion — What do you love? For Steve Blechschmidt, it was the guitar. Every day he practices for hours perfecting his unique finger style guitar playing.
  6. Never Stop Learning — Some people are practicing their passion every day, some are taking classes or reading books, for me I am researching by meeting people and hearing their stories.

I’ve never had the luxury of figuring out what I want to do. I have been more focused on what I could do to make money to support my family. Now, I have been given this gift of time.

I invite you to come along on my journey or better yet, become a part of it. I am always looking for new people to be a part of my blog. If you have made a major life change after 50, or you know someone who has, email me at ksparis15@gmail.com. I want to tell your story.

Thanks for supporting my blog so far and as my mother-in-law used to say, “The best is yet to come!”

Starting Her Next Chapter

Fulfilling a life long goal as a children’s author is only one of the parts of Susan Diamond Riley’s wonderful life.

While many people move to Hilton Head Island to begin their retirement, Susan Diamond Riley had a different plan. Hilton Head opened up a whole new world for her. Rather than a second act, Susan said, “I like to think of it as a second chapter.”

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Her “second chapter” began at her daughter’s graduation from the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Susan became inspired when she saw that some of the master’s degree candidates were her age and older. “I thought, ‘Wow! I could go back to school’”

At 50, it had been a long time since she’d been a student. “I thought that I had missed that boat,” Susan said. But when she saw people who had “hopped on that boat”, she decided to join them.

Driving home that night, she told her husband, “I’m going to earn my master’s degree.” She applied the next week. “I jumped on it while I was still enthusiastic and before I chickened out,” Susan said.

Choosing a Major

Susan had spent her professional career writing and editing. Even after she had left her full-time career to raise her children, she continued to do freelance work writing for local publications and taking editing jobs. But it was her work as a substitute teacher that inspired her to write for middle schoolers and led her to major in Children’s Literature.

“I had always had a goal of writing a novel, however it never took priority. It was one of those things that was a dream, but there were everyday things that took precedence,” Susan said. “I needed some accountability to make me do it.” That’s what going back to school gave her.

During her course work, she received an assignment to write a thriller. Trying to combine her interest in children’s literature with the assignment, she asked the professor if she could write a thriller for children. He said, “Hey, if you can pull it off, you can do it.”

The Origin of Her Idea

Susan was struggling to find inspiration for her assignment. While on a family vacation to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, she asked her children and in-laws for ideas. Her children suggested setting the story on Hilton Head. Although Susan liked the idea, she found it difficult to imagine a thriller in such as idyllic setting.

Susan’s first book Sea Island’s Secret

“Maybe they find a skeleton in the salt marsh?” her mother-in-law suggested. Intrigued, Susan thought about the idea, but decided it should be an old skeleton to make it “less creepy” for her middle-school-aged readers. The story idea (which eventually became her first novel, The Sea Island’s Secret) began to develop. Soon Susan began thinking about how the skeleton could have gotten there, what event could have happened. She began researching the history of Hilton Head. “I discovered there’s tons of history in the Lowcountry.” Susan decided to weave that history and mystery together for a winning combination.

Part of that research involved taking a tour of Hilton Head with a local historian, who took her to a gated community. “There was so much history there. That neighborhood was the site of Civil War history, relics from the Spanish-American War, and it was the site of the start of the first self-governing community of freed slaves.” Susan said. “I told my husband that if we ever move down to Hilton Head full-time, we need to live in this neighborhood where we can be in the center of all that history.”

The Move to Hilton Head

Although many people move to Hilton Head to retire, that was not Susan’ plan. While writing her books in Charlotte, she had fallen in love with Hilton Head.“People assume because my books are set in Hilton Head that I was living there when I started writing them, but it was just the opposite,” Susan said.

So, shortly after she received her master’s degree, Susan and her husband of over 30 years, Steve, moved their family down to Hilton Head and into the neighborhood she had toured with the historian. Fortunately, her husband was able to continue working with his company remotely.

“Once I moved down here, I felt as though there was a lot of history in this part of the country that had been forgotten. I decided I would write books to tell those stories,” Susan said.

Her stories weave together historical events with some made-up fiction. As a former teacher, Susan loves the fact that the students are learning history that they might not learn in the classroom. However, at the end of each book, she devotes a section to clarify fact from fiction in the story.

What’s Special About Delta and Jax?

Susan’s books are about siblings from Chicago, Delta and Jax, who go to visit their grandparents on Hilton Head for the summer. They always encounter some kind of mystery from the past they have to uncover.

When asked why her books are so popular, Susan said. “The kids like the humor of the brother and sister and their friends. And they like learning about the history they haven’t been taught in their history classes.” In her books, Susan tries to give history context. “As they (Delta and Jax) are solving this mystery from the past, something’s happening in the current day too. They’re learning lessons from the past that maybe help them solve something they are dealing with in the present day.” She tries to make history relevant to her characters—and readers’—modern lives.

Bumps in the Road

Shortly after the move to Hilton Head, Steve’s company went through a transition and his position was eliminated. Although he had the opportunity to find another position within the company, he chose to take the severance package his company offered and retire at age 54. “We decided it was a sign from God,” Susan said. However, that was not without looking at the numbers and talking to their financial planner.

Then, just as Susan was getting ready for her second book to drop, COVID hit. “My second book The Sea Turtle’s Curse (exploring the Spanish explorers and Native Americans who called the Lowcountry home in the late 1600s) came out smack in the middle of COVID,” she said. She had a number of in-person events including a launch party, speaking engagements, and book festivals scheduled. “I had a full schedule of marketing events planned for the next six months,” Susan said, “and every single one of them was cancelled.”

Suddenly she had an open period, but she also had writer’s block. “Fortunately for me, other people didn’t,” Susan said. During COVID, many people took the time to do some writing, so Susan said, “I had a lot of editing business which I could do from home.”

She also began researching her next book which is due out in September, The Sea Witch’s Revenge. In her third book, Delta and Jax face a mystery involving the Revolutionary War.

During this time, Susan was able to do some virtual school visits and online writing and editing workshops for adults and kids via Zoom. She is also affiliated with the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC about an hour from her home. “They kept a lot of programming going virtually. So, I taught classes, did virtual author visits, and even a couple of videos for public television.

“But there’s nothing like really being with the people,” Susan said. She is now back to in-person events. After a recent visit with a group of 8th graders, Susan received a packet of thank you notes. “You don’t get those when you’re just a face on a tv screen in their classroom,” Susan said.

Making Dreams Come True

Although, Steve ended up retiring earlier than they had planned, the couple was ready for it.

“We started planning for retirement at 25,” Susan said. The plan had always been for Steve to retire in his 50s. They had always made savings a priority and fully funded their 401Ks. But the key to their financial success was simple. “We always lived below our means,” Susan said.

She explains, “When we could have moved to a bigger house, we didn’t quite yet. When we could have gotten a bigger, fancier car, we didn’t. All with the idea that we wanted to plan for the future.” Those goals didn’t only include early retirement, but also putting their three children through college.

Even today, if they have any major financial decisions to make, they call their advisor and have him “run the numbers.”

In her “free” time, Susan likes to take advantage of all of the activities on Hilton Head. “One of the reasons we decided to move down here is because people are so physically active and the climate makes it possible,” Susan said. “We thought we’d be encouraged by all the other active people.” She swims, plays pickleball, and takes walks on the beach. She sometimes plays golf, but her husband plays golf several days a week.

She loves making her own hours and having her husband have that same flexibility. “He is so much more relaxed,” she said. “We have been able to make so many friends here in such a short period of time because we have more time to socialize.”

In addition, her family has recently had some health issues to deal with and she said, “Our neighbors have come out of the woodwork to help by offering rides, making meals, and giving emotional support.” She said she doesn’t think it would have been like that anywhere else they’ve lived because people were busy working.

Because of the couple’s many new friends and active social life, “Our kids say it’s like we’re in college again except we don’t have to go to classes,” Susan said. “I highly recommend it.”

“We love it down here. We really do.”

Her biggest issue is that she needs to learn to say no. There is always something to do and she wants to be involved in everything. “I want to do all the things,” Susan said, but adds that she needs to balance her social and volunteer activities with her time writing the Delta and Jax mysteries and her “day job” as a freelance editor.

Health Care Before Medicare

For many people over 60, healthcare is a huge issue. Susan said they were fortunate to qualify for her husband’s company healthcare plan after he retired, but they did weigh all the options available. “We looked into getting private insurance. We knew there were good options out there. We could have gotten something for slightly less than we pay now, but a lot of those plans restrict you to a certain state,” Susan said. They ultimately chose a plan that wouldn’t restrict them to one state since Hilton Head is so close to the Georgia border.

“People stay in jobs that they frankly hate just for the healthcare,” Susan said. “It’s an urban legend that you can’t retire until you get Medicare because otherwise you won’t have health insurance.”

She encourages people who are using lack of health insurance as an excuse not to retire to look into insurance options more. “It’s not that black and white at all. There are a lot of options for health insurance in retirement.”

Advice for People Ready to Make a Change

Although, the word retirement does not exactly describe Susan’s life on Hilton Head, she and her husband made some big changes after 50. She began a new career and her husband retired from his. Susan often has to remind her friends, “My husband is retired. I’m not retired.” She’s self-employed and is learning to balance her work with all the other activities available to her, but she wouldn’t change a thing.

She has some advice for people looking to make a big change in their lives. “I’m a big proponent of lists. So, if you need to, make a list of the pros and cons. Then, check the numbers. Your chances of success are better if you know it’s financially feasible,” Susan said.

But even if retirement isn’t an option right now, Susan’s advice is to figure out a way to make your dreams a reality. Her philosophy is: “A thousand things can happen between now and dinner time. So, better now than later.” Even before beginning her new career as a writer, Susan and her husband were ticking things off on their bucket list including visiting all 50 states.

“If there’s something that’s on your bucket list, do it. What are you waiting for?” Susan said. “Figure out a way to make it happen while you can.”

Susan is enjoying her life on Hilton Head, her career as an author/editor, and life with her husband Steve. She is currently working on her fourth novel The Sea Devil’s Demise, set in the early 1700s and involving a reader favorite: pirates.

If you want to find out more about Susan and her career, visit her website at SusanDiamondRiley.com.

If you know someone who would make a great subject for my blog, email me at ksparis15@gmail.com.

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