The questions most people think about before retirement are “How much money will I need?” and “Am I saving enough?” But while financial security is certainly critical, people need to amass more than money for a successful retirement, experts say. They need to stockpile their emotional reserves, as well.
Too few people consider the psychological adjustments that accompany this life stage, which can include coping with the loss of your career identity, replacing support networks you had through work, spending more time than ever before with your spouse and finding new and engaging ways to stay active.
Some retirees ease smoothly into retirement, spending more time with hobbies or family and friends. But others, research finds, experience anxiety, depression and debilitating feelings of loss, says Robert Delamontagne, PhD, author of the 2011 book “The Retiring Mind: How to Make the Psychological Transition to Retirement.”
“People can go through hell when they retire and they will never say a word about it, often because they are embarrassed,” Delamontagne says. “The cultural norm for retirement is that you are living the good life.”
Research by psychologists and others has found that working or volunteering during retirement can help stave off depression, as well as dementia and hypertension. But other evidence suggests that such activities aren’t the key to everyone’s well-being. Psychologist Jacquelyn B. James, PhD, of the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, has found that only those people who are truly engaged in their post-retirement activities reap the psychological benefits.
That’s why people need to invest as much if not more time in their social or psychological portfolio planning before retirement, to figure out what makes them happy, James says.
“Retirement is not like jumping off a diving board, it’s a process and it takes time,” she says. “There’s a lot of work people can be doing leading up to retirement to prepare for it.”
Working toward well being
Soon-to-be retirees should consider whether or not to continue to work in some capacity, say psychologists. Many people take on new jobs after retiring from their primary careers with part-time work, a temporary job or self-employment – a trend known as “bridge employment” or “encore” work. According to a 2013 Careerbuilder.com survey, 60 percent of workers age 60 and older said they would look for a new job after retiring, up from 57 percent last year. In its 2010 “Working in Retirement: A 21st Century Phenomenon” report, the Sloan Center on Aging and Work and the Families and Work Institute reported that 1 in 5 workers has a post-retirement job and 75 percent of workers expect to work or transition to a second career at some point after they retire.
While working has obvious financial perks, it may also offer health and mental health benefits. A 2009 study led by Mo Wang, PhD, of the University of Florida, found that people who pursued post-retirement bridge employment in their previous fields reported better mental and physical health than those who retired fully. The Working in Retirement report found that employed retirees report levels of health, well-being and life satisfaction on par with those who have not yet retired – despite age differences. The report also found that working retirees tend to rate their workplaces more positively than those not yet retired.
New research also shows that delaying retirement may stave off cognitive decline. A study of nearly half a million people by French researcher Carole Dufouil of the research agency INSERM, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in July, found that for each additional year they worked, people reduced their risk of dementia by 3.2 percent.
Still, finding post-retirement opportunities or staying in the workforce as peers retire can be challenging, say psychologists.
“People can be as interested as they want to be, but if the positions aren’t available, or if they don’t have support through the transition, it can be difficult,” says psychologist Joann M. Montepare, PhD, who directs the Rose Mary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging at Lasell College in Newton, Mass.
That’s where such organizations as the Boston-based group Discovering What’s Next come in, says Montepare, who serves on is board of directors. The organization offers support and resources to people 55 and over who want to embark on a second or post-retirement career and need guidance on figuring out what they want to do and retooling their skills. The organization also offers talks on interviewing and networking, as well as group discussions on age discrimination, financial insecurities and loss of career identity.
The organization is also working to increase awareness among local employers about how to tap and manage older talent, and organizing outreach programs at local businesses and nonprofits for older workers considering role transitions or retirement.
The decision to retire is a personal one that’s as much psychological as financial. It’s a lifestyle change triggered by some event. Aside from involuntary catalysts, such as layoffs and health issues, those triggers often fall into several categories. One is family. Many people simply want to be closer to relatives or spend more time with grandchildren. Another is career restlessness – the desire to do something different, make more of an impact or just have more flexibility. Still another is a reminder of mortality, such as experiencing a health scare or receiving news of the death of a close friend or family member. “People realize that their time is their one fixed resource, and how they spend it becomes more important as time shrinks,” says Brian Sykes, a certified financial planner in Blue Bell, PA.
It’s not uncommon for people to hold onto a job too long, sometimes for financial reasons or fear of the unknown. “Unless you have a really exciting plan to transition to, there are a lot of psychological reasons not to retire,” says financial psychologist Brad Klontz. “If it turns out well, it’s usually because people have pretty good social connections or haven’t totally retired.”
Even contemplating leaving a job creates a lot of anxiety for some people. They like their work, have an established life, routine and relationships. When you leave all of that behind to retire, you will have to establish new routines, new relationships and a new way of seeing yourself and the world.
Preparing for Retirement
To prepare yourself mentally for retirement, Nancy Schlossberg, a retired professor of counseling psychology at the University of Maryland, recommends taking a hard look at three areas of your life:
Your identity. It’s who you are to yourself and the world. You can think of it as what you put on your business card or your tagline under your e-mail signature, she says. “When I was a professor at the University of Maryland, it was very easy to say that, and people got a picture of who I was. If you are a roofer, painter, artist, teacher – that’s part of your identity. One man who retired as CEO of a Fortune 100 company had plenty of money for his golden years, but he said his retirement felt ‘hollow’ because he hadn’t thought about his new identity.”
Some people may be OK with saying “retiree,” but others will be happier if they strive to define a post-retirement identity that will provide structure to their days and meaning to their lives.
Your purpose/mission. This is related to your identity. It’s what gets you going in the morning. It’s your passion. It can take some time to sort out, and you may have several different missions or purposes during your golden years. Schlossberg says. You can ask yourself what you wish you had done in your life and turn that into a new focus. “One woman said to me, ‘I help organizations develop mission statements, but I don’t have a mission statement myself.’”
Your relationships. When you leave your work life, you often lose touch with people who were once a part of your everyday life, so you need to develop new relationships, new communities. You might do that by engaging in volunteer activities, going to a health club or even hanging out at Starbucks, Schlossberg says.
Your relationship with your spouse or partner may change, because you’ll probably be spending a lot more time together, Schlossberg says. Sometimes too much togetherness causes people to get on each other’s nerves for minor things, so couples may need to negotiate some new ground rules, she says.
Developmental psychologist Adam Davey, a professor of public health at Temple University’s College of Health Professions and Social Work, agrees. “There’s an old statement about couples and retirement: ‘I married him for better or for worse but not for lunch.’
“Suddenly having a husband home and underfoot can be a source of irritation. Since men’s friendships are very often concentrated around work or activities, the transition to retirement can place unwanted expectations for wives.”
Davey says one good strategy he heard from a retiring couple is they told friends and family that they were going to take the first three months of retirement just for themselves so they could fully “enjoy the honeymoon period of their retirement.”
The important thing is to make sure you realize that you still count, Schlossberg says. “When you retire, you can feel marginalized. Some people feel they no longer matter, but feeling that you matter, that you are appreciated and depending upon is important to experiencing a happy retirement.”
Based on interviews with more than 150 retirees, Schlossberg identified the following ways that people approach retirement:
• Continuers who keep using existing skills and interests. They still use skills, interests and activities but modify them to fit retirement. “I am a continuer. I don’t teach or have a salary, but I still write and speak about things I’ve always been interested in.”
• Adventurers who start entirely new endeavors. They see retirement as an opportunity to make daring changes in their lives. “I’m not talking about becoming mountain climbers, but these are people who start something new. For example, a bank teller might become a docent in a museum. An investigative reporter might become an artist. It is about adventures in new arenas.”
• Searchers who explore new options through trial and error. This means you look into different activities. You talk to people in the fields you’re interested in. You volunteer for different projects or programs, and if you don’t like one, you try something else. This is much like what happens to many high school and college graduates who don’t know exactly what they want to do when they graduate, so they search and struggle to find their way, Schlossberg says.
• Easy gliders who enjoy unscheduled time letting each day unfold. “They let the day unfold. Maybe they’ll babysit the grandkids one day. Maybe they’ll go to the movies. They may just hang out. They don’t have an agenda, and they are comfortable not having one.”
• Involved spectators who care deeply about the world, but engage in less-active ways. This may be an art director who is retired but still goes to art museums, or a politician who is still a news junkie, she says.
• Retreaters who take time out or disengage from life. There are two kinds of these folks: people who are couch potatoes and people who are taking time to figure out what to do.
“Many combine paths, and over time, one’s path might change,” Schlossberg says. “The point of looking at paths is to realize the many options for everyone during retirement.”
Klontz points out that baby boomers are the first generation to face the challenge of how to plan for a retirement lasting 25 to 30 years. To ease the passage, he suggests picturing a post-employment “psychological timeline.” What will you be doing, say, three years after you leave your job? Where will you be living? Who will you be spending time with? “You have to be very specific and realistic about your post-retirement lifestyle,” he says.