Parkinson’s Disease Convinced Me It Was Time to Retire

To many people reading this blog post, you may have been dreaming of retirement for much of your adult life. Not me. An old saying goes, "Some people work to live while others live to work." I was in the latter category.

I was comfortable working 50 to 60 hours per week because, in my prime, I was teaching both undergraduate and medical students and performing biomedical research by directing a laboratory group. Career was a defining feature, and then Parkinson’s happened, making me change and become a better, healthier, more aware, and more complete person.

Looking back on my career and Parkinson's

An educated guess, I probably had Parkinson’s for a decade or so before my official diagnosis at 59 years of age. Thus, it was likely in my late 40s, I began being affected by Parkinson’s without knowing it.

I look back at my academic career during this timeframe. I can see some career dips, especially in my ability to focus, attention to detail, and an apparent need to work even longer and harder to keep the laboratory research group "funded." When I look back at this time, could it have been the beginning of Parkinson’s contributing to its evil grip on my brain?

In my mind, there was no riding off into the sunset. I was having too much fun working, doing science, and teaching. Then came Parkinson’s and the slow litany of progression and motor dysfunction. I remember being so tired that I felt like I needed a nap every afternoon.

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Then, finally, I remember taking the first dose of a dopamine agonist, Ropinirole, and the melting away of my Parkinson’s after a few years of undiagnosed misery. It was the magical relief of dopamine replacement therapy, feeling my body with such a depleted stockroom emptied of dopamine.

The concept of phase-retirement

A few years ago, I attended a research meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, and was seated at a table with some folks from a nearby medical school. They worked in an office that focused on assisting research faculty during their phase-retirement period. I had never heard of phased retirement and got an education that morning. They planted the seed, and the plan seemed straightforward.

My University offers a phase-retirement plan, but there are some hurdles to entering this half-time faculty member group. One went from full-time to half-time, with a tremendous change in life and work. In the first year, very little changed because I worked just as long as before but for half the salary. What a deal for the University.

The second and third years were better because they gave me time to phase out at work, to begin fading away and growing into the new me. But, importantly, it allowed me the time to discover myself in the presence of Parkinson’s. It gave me time to understand my Parkinson’s on a very up-close personal level. And I started feeling better physically and traced the wellness to a few things.

Reduced stress

The stress that came with my full-time academic job fed my Parkinson’s. Think of Parkinson’s as a group of sharks around a fishing boat docking at a pier unloading their daily catch. Think of stress as the carcasses of dead fish being thrown overboard and the craziness of the sharks feeding.

Increased awareness

Gaining a handle on what Parkinson’s is trying to do every minute you are alive and coming face-to-face with the invader on the inside. The dealer has dealt your cards to you. Take it and keep moving forward.

Improved health

First, you learn what needs to be done to get healthier amid Parkinson’s. Then, you can tilt the seesaw back in your favor by trying harder. Try to think, focus on better health, re-arrange your free time to exercise more, and imagine what it must be like to get more sleep, but mainly, don’t beat yourself up because of Parkinson’s.

Appreciating what is ahead

You can’t just sit still. Parkinson’s will win. You can’t reinvent your 20s but you can restart life as you once knew it. You can relax and begin cultivating good and vitality.

Gaining leverage over Parkinson's

Parkinson’s (remember the sharks) grows more potent from the discarded fish (remember, the stress). The goal is to reduce the pressure (i.e., fewer dead fish being thrown into the water) and gain better control of your Parkinson’s.

Working halftime gave me more time to exercise, which is always good against Parkinson’s. But in hindsight, reducing stress during phase retirement was the critical event in unlocking and moving my health away from Parkinson’s grip.

If your employer offers a phased-retirement plan AND you can manage the salary difference, do it for your health, I repeat, do it for your health.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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