Psych Services: HPD Retirement: ‘If you don’t have an exit plan, you won’t exit

Lisa Garmezy

The numbers are bad. On average, Houston police employees retire at age 53 with 26 years of service, spend 16 years in retirement and die at age 69. Line-of-duty deaths and suicides help keep this number low.

If you look just at employees who survive to retirement, the picture brightens: now your expected time in retirement is 18 years and your life expectancy is 73.

The Family Assistance Office was kind enough to share these numbers with me. I wanted to check out the belief—fueled by recent tragedies—that officers live only five or 10 years after retirement.

It isn’t true.

Yet our employees do have shorter lifespans than the general population. I played with the Social Security Life Expectancy Calculator. In the general population, folks aged 30-60 now can expect to live to 82 or 83 for men or 85 to 86 for women.

Assuming you reach retirement, the stress of police work is robbing you of a decade.

There are two possible takeaways here. First, make your health a priority and maybe you can get some of that time back. Second, 18 years may be longer than you expected but it’s not forever. Plan ahead to get the most out of your life’s last chapter.

If the idea of your own mortality doesn’t scare you too much, Google the Wharton Life Expectancy Calculator. On the short form, after you enter some basic information, you can make your numbers go up or down as you change factors like smoking, exercise and wearing a seatbelt.

I Want My Decade Back

We have little choice in life but to accept what we cannot change and focus on changing the things we can.

Much of police stress is a given. There is nothing you can do about shiftwork, disturbing scenes, bureaucracy or the people out there who wish you harm. Patrol will always mean forcing your body to go from nothing-happening-tonight boredom to full-alert adrenaline pumping in a destructive instant.

But cops report sleeping under six hours a night four times more than the general population. That could be changed.

The same 2011 study found that officers’ diets put them at greater risk than the general population for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. You could fix that.

More than half of Americans report stressing over money. Living simply prevents that.

Sedentary lifestyles are dangerous. As a colleague at M. D. Anderson says, sitting is the new smoking. You could hit the gym.

Good relationships with others contribute to longevity. Save time for family and friends.

The Exit Plan

Now that you’ve beaten the odds, tweak your retirement plan. You’re stockpiling cash. To get the most out of your 18 years, you should also be developing interests outside of law enforcement. You can be a cop and a woodworker, choir member, coach or small business owner.

They say in retirement you spend Sundays the same way you always did, whether it’s going to church or sleeping in and catching up on the news. But the rest of the week feels like six Saturdays. Multiply that by 18 years, and you’ve got a lot of time to fill.

We are happier and healthier when we find our activities not just fun, but also meaningful. You will need to create that for yourself. Eventually there will be time to connect with nature, join a mission trip, memorialize fallen officers with our retirees, or invest your time in the next generation.

Working in the Family Assistance Office has convinced Bob Sampiere to think ahead. He’s learned, he says, that “If you don’t have an exit plan, you won’t exit.”

Gifts without Guarantees

Even more important than the question of what you will do is who you will do it with. The M. D. Anderson psychologist told me we’re wired to feel safe with others, and when we are alone, at a very primitive level, we feel uneasy. There’s a definite connection between loneliness and early death. This makes a lot of sense for law enforcement personnel, who are used to finding strength in numbers.

We can strengthen our circles of support as we go through life. Sometimes this means improving family relationships and other times it means forming a family of closely-bonded friends. That counts as retirement planning too.

No amount of preparation ensures that we’ll leave HPD in good health, ready to reap the rewards of our hard work. Cops know that Death could be waiting around any corner. Averages and statistics don’t—thank God—tell us what lies ahead.

We remain blissfully unaware of the number of our days. However many we’ll have, they are too precious to squander.