Sudden Illness Caused Paulette Geller to Retire Young

Disability insurance kept her afloat.

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Paulette Geller, 64, planned to work until 66 or 67, to boost her Social Security check. (Social Security benefit amounts are based on a person's top 35 years of working income and increased for each year one delays claiming up until age 70.) Then, after successful foot surgery, she was being wheeled to her car to go home when she had a stroke.

The stroke caused Geller to lose some technical skills and vision, keeping her from continuing to work as program director for older adults at the Winter Park (Fla.) Health Foundation. "I honestly thought I wasn't going to ever stop working. I was going to cut back to half time or quarter time because I loved my job," Geller says. Suddenly, "I couldn't do my job anymore, but it wasn't on my timeline and I wasn't in control."

Now, Geller gets 60 percent of her former salary from long-term disability payments (because she had company-paid LTD insurance), pays for health insurance coverage under COBRA, and recently signed up for Social Security disability payments, which are deducted from her other disability payments.

"All of a sudden I felt useless," says Geller, who is also twice widowed, of her unexpected retirement. "I wasn't ready. The part that was the hardest was figuring out who am I without my work, because I had been working for so long." Now Geller gardens, takes classes to renew her technical skills, volunteers at a center helping other people who have suffered vision loss, and is learning to play the African drums.

After her stroke, "I panicked and said, 'Oh my God, I'm not going to be able to keep my house, pay my bills,' " Geller says. But she has taken steps to prepare for the possibility of another health problem. Geller added her son's name to her safety deposit box so that in the event of her death, he wouldn't have to go through probate to get access to it. She has made a will, told her sons her final wishes, and created something she calls the "God forbid notebook" where she spells out for her sons her desired funeral arrangements and other wishes. "If something sudden happens," says Geller, "you can do things like have your finances in order."

This blog post is part of an ongoing series of stories about people who retired while they were making other plans. If you'd like the story of your unplanned retirement featured in an upcoming post, please write me at retire@usnews.com and include your phone number. Or you can discuss your story in the comments section.