Taking the Retirement Leap
If you’ve been working for more than a few years, chances are that you fantasise about retirement on a regular basis. What would it be like to have your days completely free? All of the days? Imagine all the things you could do! Sleeping in, watching a movie in the middle of the day, guilt-free…. The world would be your oyster. Unfortunately, for many people retirement is a jarring upheaval that can cause people to feel untethered, adrift, and purposeless. One’s job or career can provide a deep sense of purpose and identity that disappears virtually overnight. As much as you may look forward to spending more time with loved ones, cultivating a hobby, travelling, or babysitting the grandkids, the transition from working stiff to retiree can be a rocky one. Retirement is a time of much higher risk for issues like depression and anxiety.
In order to experience a strong sense of wellbeing, most of us need two types of activities in our lives: activities that give us a sense of achievement and activities that give us pleasure. Achievement activities are those that give us a sense of accomplishment when they are completed. Sometimes they are enjoyable, but often they are not. For example, paying a bill or cleaning the bathroom is usually not fun, but most people feel good about having completed those tasks when they are done. Pleasure activities are those things that we do for fun: reading a book, doing yoga, spending time with a loved one. There can be significant overlap between the two types of activities, but one thing is certain: we usually feel a sense of achievement, however small, when we leave work after a long day.
For many people, what they do for a living can be deeply tied up with who they are as a person. It can say something about the group to which you belong. You may see the fact that you are a doctor, teacher, mechanic, or chef as part of the way you define yourself. There is nothing wrong with this; however, it can be problematic when you wake up on the first morning of retirement and, suddenly, you aren’t a lawyer, anymore. Now who are you?
For those that work in an office or other environment in which they are frequently interacting with others in the course of normal business, retirement means no longer seeing these people every day. It can mean that you go from lots of social interaction to very little in a short span of time. This can spark a deep sense of loneliness for some people if they do not have other social groups to which they belong.
Retirement can also be hard on a marriage. The amount of time you spend with your spouse suddenly increases dramatically. If your spouse continues to work, they may resent your newfound freedom or their expectations of your contributions to the running of the household may change. If your spouse does not work and is used to having the house to him- or herself while you work all day, this can lead to a different set a problems. If your marriage has had problems, these can very quickly become major problems.
And finally, the reality of retirement sometimes does not match the idealized vision in your head. If you fantasise about travelling most of the year and then reach retirement and find that you cannot afford to do so or your partner does not want to spend his or her time this way, that can be a really significant blow.
So how to cope with all of these potential landmines? The following suggestions may help you avoid the common pitfalls of retirement and ensure that it is the glorious paradise that you always dreamed it would be.
1. Keep structure in your schedule. It can be flexible and can include as many sleep-ins as you like. However, following a rough schedule will help anchor you and give you a sense of productivity. You may still choose to do the grocery shopping on a certain day. Pencil in exercise and/or walking the dog in the morning. Whatever will ground you is going to be helpful. Include both achievement and pleasure activities.
2. Think carefully about what you want your purpose to be in retirement. How do you want to continue to contribute to society? This does not need to be time consuming but most people find they thrive most if they’re doing something. For many, volunteering is a way to retain a sense of purpose. You may put your hand up to look after the grandkids a couple of days per week. Start a blog and share what you have learned. Mentor someone in your previous career field. There are endless ways to contribute to society that needn’t interrupt too much all the relaxing you plan to do.
3. Join a group. I’m serious. You might hate it and you can always change to something else, but do something that will force you to be around people on a regular basis. One of the strongest predictors of continued good health in older adults is the quality of their relationships and their feelings of connectedness. If needed, wrangle your partner into joining with you. It may be uncomfortable at first, but most things that are worthwhile are.
4. If you are married, take inventory. Reflect on whether there are weak spots in your marriage and make a plan for addressing them. Spending 24/7 with anyone will expose all the hairy flaws in that relationship. It is best to be honest with yourself and your partner and to start to address them sooner rather than later. If you feel you need a professional to help, seek a qualified couple therapist. Also, make plans so that you and your partner regularly have space to yourselves, if you feel this may be an issue.
5. Take a few minutes to jot down the fantasy in your head in relation to retirement. Discuss it with your partner. It is important that you both share your expectations about this period of your life and negotiate compromises if those visions are different. If your partner wants to plant a large garden and spend all his or her time tending to it, and you want to live in Italy for three months, those two ideas will need to be reconciled. It is better to do that before you get there.