It is the first week of 2015 and 84-year-old Hank Blum is officially retired. He's said that before.
His wife of 41 years, Patti, has thrown him three retirement parties, one for each of the times he packed away his phoropter, bid his colleagues goodbye and closed the door to his optometry practice, presumably for the last time.
“I didn't have the nerve to say we were having another retirement party,” says Patti.
Hank is OK skipping the fuss, and a touch superstitious anyway.
“I said, don't make one this time. Maybe it will stick.”
Hank has worked for six decades as an optometrist in New York City. For most of those years, he commuted by 5 or 6 train from his Upper East Side apartment to his office in the Bronx. His business, Henry Blum Optometrist and Associates on Southern Boulevard, served tens of thousands of people and was one source of stability in a neighborhood where properties sat vacant for years.
He was president and on the board of directors for city-wide optometric societies. He lobbied in Albany to grant optometrists, previously a drugless profession, the right to use pharmaceuticals to diagnose eye conditions and then later, to treat the eye. Hank was also a part of the pro bono board that gave free eye care to those who couldn't afford it.
Hank deeply loves his work and particularly enjoyed helping people, “I know there are people out there who can see because of me,” he says.
“I never went to work a day in my life.”
Retirement, a life stage and societal expectation, hasn't stuck well for Hank.
The first time Hank retired in 2000, he did so because he thought it was what people did at that age.
“I thought, I was 70 and it was time to retire,” he says. “I had money [saved]. Why was I going to work?”
He sold the practice. Patti gave him a surprise retirement party packed with family and friends. Amid the balloons, the cake and the congratulations, he was already wondering if he had made a mistake.
Just weeks later regret and boredom set in. “I said, schmuck what the hell did you do?” he recalls. “I was so bored. I was still very healthy. I was still very viable. I felt like I could pick up the world and put it on my shoulders.”
He would pace around the apartment, mindlessly flipping through TV channels and checking the stock market.
“I didn't know what to do with myself and I missed it.” He called up the new owner of his old practice and asked for a job. They welcomed him enthusiastically and he went back to work four days a week, down from his previously full schedule.
Two years later, at the age of 72, he decided he really was done this time. He said his goodbyes, and Patti threw him a second retirement party at DeGrezia Restaurant on 50th Street.
Failing to come up with a post-retirement schedule that gave him any structure or purpose, he was soon again bored sick.
“Two weeks went by. It wasn't for me,” he says. “I was lost.” He called up the office, returned to the practice and resumed his work, now clocking in three days a week.
At the age of 76 – six years after his first retirement attempt – Hank's health was declining from the effects of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a progressive condition that makes breathing challenging and is a leading cause of death in the U.S.
He retired again, but it was short-lived when the owner talked Hank into coming back to work within weeks. For eight years, he commuted and worked with days off in between to rest. By the end of 2014, he had cut his days down from three to two.
It still wasn't enough to stave off the exhaustion he would feel at the end of each work-day. Climbing up the stairs at the 77th Street subway stop was becoming increasingly difficult. He would have to sit on the bench outside a supermarket for 15 minutes before going home to catch his breath.
“It's just not worth it,” he says. “It was just getting to be too much.”
Hank did not feel up to seeing patients late in the day and it would occasionally lead to arguments with the office staff who booked his schedule. Hank also said he began to forget people's names, and that he could no longer bend down to pick things up from the floor.
So the end of the holidays and the 2015 New Year marked what Hank believed -- really believed -- was his real end to work.
Hank's repeated retirement celebrations may be unusual, but uncertainty over when to stop working and what to do afterward is a pressing concern for many New Yorkers, as they live longer and healthier. Some need to work longer for financial reasons. Others enjoy work and their work lives and want to continue. And still others find that a lack of clear roles in post-retirement life and a lack of structure bring fear and make work seem appealing.
When social security was created in 1935, and Hank was five years old, those who reached the age eligible to retire and receive benefits at the age of 65 were only expected to live seven more years. Now, average life expectancy in New York City is 81.
As an optometrist, Hank was so popular that people would travel to see him after moving away and came in requesting him long after he started tapering his hours.
“The furthest one came from Africa,” he said naming a Columbia University professor who would schedule his appointments with Hank - and only Hank - when he was in town.
Hank had a strong and mutually teasing relationship with his staff, as well as his patients. To relax them and make them feel at ease he would often create silly poems and examine eyes in rhyme. He also learned to examine eyes in Spanish even though he doesn't speak the language.
Humor was his lifeline when he battled Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a form of cancer which affected the layer of cells covering his heart, when he was in his 40s. He jokes, “When it rains my heart gets wet. It doesn't have a cover.”
Determined to cheat a dire prognosis, he dealt with rounds of chemotherapy, extreme fatigue and intense nausea by watching Johnny Carson, reading funny books and viewing anything that could lift his spirits. “If I was going to laugh, I was going to live,” he says.
He worked throughout his cancer treatment, undergoing chemo on Tuesdays, battling sickness on Wednesdays, and examining patients on Thursdays. He would go about the office bald, announcing “I'm doing Yul Brynner's part in the King and I.”
Humor is still his lifeline now that's he's dealing with other health issues. Hank's COPD is in Stage 2 and he has Atrial Fibrillation (AFib). His COPD, diagnosed four years ago, con-stricts his breathing on a daily basis and will inevitably get worse.
He has episodes from the AFib once every two or three months, which are debilitating and leave him stuck in bed. After years of smoking, he now describes himself as “violently anti-smoking.” He's considered a miracle patient by his doctors, and doing well, but is hitting his limits.
“I was such a vital person. I used to run the [Central Park] reservoir. I was able to stay out all night. I had abundant energy. What happened to me?” he asks. He used to love to dance. Now he avoids steps and hills. Even the gradual incline of Second Avenue going north is too much. He's given up drinking alcohol, coffee and chocolate. He worries about a potential stroke. He says the COPD is worse than cancer.
“You take a breath and nothing is going in. It's a horror,” he says.
To manage his conditions he takes six pills a day and two to three inhalers.
“When the pharmacist see me he calls his wife. 'He's here again, honey. We can go out to dinner,'” Hank jokes.
With the beginning of the new year, he started a new treatment. His doctor suggested he try inhaling a mist of hypertonic saline (a saltwater solution) via a nebulizer, a common treatment for Cystic Fibrosis patients but one that is not widely available to patients with COPD. He said it's helping.
The second day of February, Groundhog Day is day 33 of Hank's retirement attempt number four. He's managed to stay retired longer than any previous try. It is 12 degrees and bitterly cold. Piles of ankle-deep gray slush line the streets leftover from a blizzard.
Hank is optimistic as usual.
“I look at it this way, every single day is closer to July,” he says, slowly trudging through the slush and breathing heavily.
The weather is a backdrop for Hank's quest of the day –- a visit to his former office.
He waits for the M103 bus at a stop just half a block from his apartment. Only minutes pass before the bus inches up. He boards the packed bus, grasps a handle and rides the short distance to 86th Street, where he walks the length of the avenue to catch the 5 train uptown to the Bronx.
Southern Blvd is where Hank feels most at home when not at home. He knows “the girls” who work at Sol's Pharmacy, the countermen at his regular lunch spot, and the people at the drug store. And he feels like he is there even when he isn't because the oversized sign above the practice door still says “Dr. Henry Blum.”
This is Hank's second visit back to his office since retiring a month ago. He's there to say hello and eat his favorite chicken soup at a nearby lunch spot. He walks in to the office and there is already an unfamiliar face, a new employee, behind the counter.
“I'm Lauren,” she says.
“I don't know you and you don't know me either but my name is out front,” Hank says.
Kenny, who has worked with Hank for the past seven years, swoops in from the far end of the counter to save his new colleague from her faux pax.
“This is Dr. Blum. He's the mayor of Southern Blvd,” says Kenny, an optician.
“Can you AR me? I think I need a change in prescription,” Hank asks Kenny.
Hank sits in front of the automatic refractor, a machine that can read a person's approximate prescription, something he never thought would be possible earlier in his career.
“Technology blows my mind.”
Kenny talks about what is so “legendary” about “The legendary Dr. Blum.”
“It can be an exhausting process coming here. No one wants to. He softens the air when you walk in the door immediately before you walk back,” Kenny says. “You know what you are going to get. It's a show from the moment you walk in.”
After 15 minutes, there isn't much for Hank to do in his old office. He walks a few storefronts over to an unassuming Mexican restaurant. “They make the greatest chicken soup in the world,” he says.
He's been coming here almost every workday since he discovered the place last year. He orders a bowl – called “chicken in pot” – and it quickly arrives, steaming, oil bubbling, a large bone poking out of the top.
Hank genuinely loves the dish, and says he makes it part of his routine “for medicinal purposes.” The warm broths help ease the uncomfortable congestion from his COPD.
“I eat this in the summer in 110 degree heat with no shade.”
The sips of fragrant broth seem to revive him and soon he's ready to make the trip back downtown.
Despite the cold, he's meeting up with Patti, at 40 Carrots, the frozen yogurt shop inside Bloomingdale's – their new daily routine since he retired.
As he pushes the restaurant door open, a burst of cold air shocks as some stray snow flurries sneak in. Hank exits into the biting air, now heavy with fat flakes of snow.
This series is a production of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health. It is led by Dorian Block and Ruth Finkelstein. It is funded by the New York Community Trust. To find all of the interviews and more, go to www.exceedingexpectations.nyc
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