Have you considered a phased out retirement?

John Bower

Colleagues in the practice and in the wider profession, most of the staff I have worked with over the years and many clients and their animals have all made for an interesting, enjoyable and at times, yes, challenging life. Yet, there comes a time when enough is enough and retirement beckons. Suffice to say, there has to be enough money available or still coming in from one source or another, because the unknown factor is how long you will live and, thus, how long the money will last.

I don't intend to cover financial aspects here, merely how I've worked out and dealt with retirement in terms of filling my new-found time. I do recall, though, being told shortly after graduation that saving into a pension plan was a good idea and, even more importantly, that starting early was essential. I am pleased I heeded that advice.

The first decision for many on retiring is usually ‘Shall we downsize, move to an idyllic spot or stay where we are?’ For me, the decision was easy as Caroline, my wife, was still working as a vet in the practice so of course we stayed put.

Phased retirement

The thought of retirement can bring a number of worries: will I suffer from a loss of identity, how will I fill the day, will I not feel important anymore, etc? Vets are well-respected members of the local community, and a sudden, complete retirement can be difficult to adapt to, in which case a gradual process may be the answer.

In my case, my working life did not come to a sudden stop, mainly as the result of a conversation on the train back to the West Country with my friend and colleague Bob Moore after a BVA meeting in London. A partner in his practice had died, and the remaining partners realised that no-one in the practice had retired since the early 1900s – they had all died while still working. The partners decided to insert a clause into their partnership agreement to the effect that a partner could opt to work part time from the age of 55. The remaining partners would not be able to override this, but there would, of course, be a financial adjustment. This struck me as being a good idea and my four partners agreed; I was 50 at the time.

So, at the end of the financial year when I reached 55, I took up this option by taking Wednesdays off. By good planning, as there were now some 10 vets in the practice, the three senior partners were not involved in out-of-hours work as the other seven vets were on a one-in-seven rota, which worked out well for all of us. Filling this one free day was no problem, mainly due to my then involvements in the veterinary world. I was a director of Vet Drug (now Dunlops), an adviser to Petplan and a trustee of the Petplan Charitable Trust. I now had enough time to become a trustee of the BVA Animal Welfare Foundation but, as there was little time left for other interests, a year later I opted to take Thursdays off as well.

"The thought of retirement can bring a number of worries: will I suffer from a loss of identity, how will I fill the day, will I not feel important anymore?"

By the age of 60 I was working a full clinical day only on Mondays and Fridays, spending Tuesday mornings on management issues, and enjoying Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday and Thursday away from the practice. By the time I fully retired, I had found ways of spending this time, and I would strongly recommend that practices consider including this option in partnership or equivalent agreements.

My other recommendation is to seriously consider getting involved in our profession in other ways, either locally or nationally. The BVA and its territorial or specialist divisions, and the Veterinary Practice Management Association, the RCVS and so on, offer involvement for vets that is rewarding and enjoyable. It can fill those early days of part-time working and I consider it would be reasonable for more vets with the time, experience and perhaps some acquired wisdom of age to put something back into their profession. I certainly enjoyed my time as an officer of the BVA, BSAVA, VPMA and, locally, the Western Counties Veterinary Association, and am certain that the practice gained too from the contacts and experience. Added advantages of this are keeping in touch with colleagues, a slower release of your working identity and maintaining a sense of worth, all of which may be of concern to a newly-retired vet.

Full retirement means spending seven days at or around home every week, where there may be one surprised partner wondering why you are interfering with their daily routine or, even worse, expecting you to suddenly adapt to their routine regardless of your plans. In my case, it has been fairly easy – so far – as Caroline is still a full-time partner in the practice (she suspects this is one of my pension plans!).


After retiring I became a trustee of Hearing Dogs for Deaf People – a wonderful charity that many of us know through our consulting rooms.

Caroline and I are lucky to live on a small farmstead within sight of Dartmoor, and we have a small flock of sheep that takes up a bit of time, as do boundary hedges and fences.

It's essential to have a dog, as this provides exercise and fun for both of you: Dudley and I enjoy walks along the river Erme nearby and, of course, on the moor. We meet really pleasant people, and as vets know, pet owners are good sorts! While out, why not call into the newsagents, buy the daily paper and return home for a coffee and crossword or Sudoku to keep the brain active?

John Bower with his dog Dudley
John believes it's essential to own a dog - they provide both fun and exercise during your retirement

With time to spend, several years ago we bought a camper van, and last year we spent a month with Dudley in France and Spain, just meandering, visiting friends, including two French vets, and following the sun. We always have a couple of weeks away in it every year, plus weekend trips to the coast and moors, which provide time to relax as the sun goes down, barbecue on the go, and a bottle of red open …

And, there's always golf! Despite what people say, it's not a good walk spoiled by the game, it is a good walk (usually about six miles, especially the way I play) in good company with much camaraderie. It is not too late to take it up on retirement; there are always people of about the same standard, and lessons are worth taking. The same applies to tennis, badminton, bowls, croquet (if you don't mind stress) and many other activities to keep you active and in contact with people.

Many retirees turn avidly to gardening, relishing the time to concentrate on it at last. I like big gardening – pruning, planning, planting and harvesting fruit crops – but not weeding. Certainly, whatever age you retire at, there needs to be time for pottering (it's very therapeutic) and for fishing. Now I have time to wander down to the river bank for some fly fishing, and lately, especially as we live near the sea, I enjoy a day off Plymouth with a friend catching mackerel, pollack and occasionally sea bass for supper. It's a bit like golf – small amounts of frantic activity and lots of time to chat!

Learning new skills

Retirement is also a time to learn new skills. I undertook a couple of courses on digital photography, which has certainly added to my enjoyment of it and my ability to take half decent photographs, with even a little artistic merit. Acquiring a new skill, such as learning a language – in my case beginners' Spanish – is good. Other retired colleagues have taken up a musical instrument, wood turning, learning to paint or cook – virtually anything that takes your fancy, but you have never had time for until now.

There are quite a few associations available for retired professionals to keep in touch with each other and to enjoy company, or charitable work or new learning, such as Probus and Rotary. I was recently asked to give a talk to the local branch of the U3A (University of the Third Age), which was a new one on me. This is a self-help organisation for people no longer in full-time employment, providing educational, creative and leisure opportunities in a friendly environment. Learning experiences such as languages and music are shared in a wide range of interest groups, not for qualifications, but for fun. U3A is growing rapidly in the UK, where there are over 784 ‘branches’ with over 250,000 members.

"I would recommend a phased retirement, if possible, to allow for adjustment to this new-found leisure time"

I also got involved with our local parish magazine, organising the paper, printing and proof reading. I put my name forward for election (successfully) as a local parish councillor – mainly because there was a local issue I felt strongly about, but if you retire in the same area it's satisfying to give something back after years working there.

I've found that retirement in the same area where I practised is a good idea; you are known and therefore find it easy to get help. You know the local tradesmen – roofers, plumbers, electricians, etc. Some people retire and move to a new, perhaps warmer or more picturesque location where they know hardly anyone. Making contacts in a new location is not so simple, and requires a lot of effort and energy, though it may work for some.

To summarise, I would recommend a phased retirement, if possible, to allow for adjustment to this new-found leisure time, and a plan as to what the future may hold. Many friends and acquaintances of the same age will be retiring at about the same time, so more can be made of these contacts.

Retired vets have a lot to offer the local community, so what with that and the time to resurrect old hobbies and pastimes, and spend with family and friends, it really is an enjoyable period of one's life – and, I might say, it's wasted on the elderly!

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