What comes to your mind when you think about retirement? For many it is a mixed bag. While you may experience lots of anticipation and excitement about this new phase in life, you may also feel a lot of worry and anxiety. Worrying about the finances of retirement is the most common concern, followed by concerns about physical health. Very few think about the social and mental health challenges that are often a part of retirement. Fortunately, with some thought and planning, all these challenges can be met.
Regardless of your age, it would be helpful to ask yourself, “What is retirement?” The Webster dictionary defines retirement as “withdrawal from one’s position or occupation or from active working life.” While this answer is common, it is not complete. Many have found it helpful to think in terms of “retiring from something to something.” It can also be helpful to think of retirement as a journey — a lifestyle instead of a destination. Consider these six common types of retirement lifestyles:
The Traditionalist stops working and engages in a variety of nonpaid, mostly leisure activities.
The Altruist stops working and instead volunteers in a variety of roles.
The Lifelong Learner stops working and pursues a nonpaid activity that requires continued learning and significant practice.
The Stair Stepper continues to work in the same career while gradually cutting back.
The Boomeranger takes a break and then returns to work.
The Reinventor continues to work in a new career or another role.
Considering these types can be helpful. All are valid, and one or two may fit you. It is important for you to be clear on what you want and need to do. This will help in your planning for retirement. Remember that planning is much more than saving money for retirement. It involves planning all aspects of your life in retirement. Those who tend to do comprehensive planning for retirement experience more satisfaction in retirement.
You might also think of the retirement journey as involving stages.
Pre-retirement is a period that involves imagining and planning for your retirement. It can occur five to 15 years before your actual retirement date. It can be a time of both significant excitement and worry.
Full Retirement is a honeymoon stage of sorts that can last up to several years. You will have feelings of relief, excitement, and freedom from the stresses of your career. Many in this stage take a long-awaited vacation, reconnect with family and friends, and spend more time on other interests. Be warned, however, that you may experience disenchantment, hence the emotional high and honeymoon wear off. You may feel a sense of disappointment and disillusionment. Retirement did not meet your expectations. Retirement is a transition, a time of loss, letting go of some things that were important to grab hold of new things in your life. Disappointment and even depression can occur when retirement doesn’t meet the expectations you had going into it.
Reorientation is often the next step, involving a re-evaluation of your retirement experience. Handled well, it can lead to some life-enhancing changes. Handled poorly, it can create further disillusion and depression and can begin to impact your physical health. Reaching the final stage of reconciliation and stability could take years. Contentment and hope replace depression and anxiety. You are settled into a satisfactory, fun, rewarding lifestyle. Healthy friendships often accompany this time.
So, what can be done to have a successful and enjoyable retirement journey? It begins with pre-retirement planning on your way to retirement. Once on the journey, you will need to develop a healthy, balanced, and meaningful lifestyle. This requires dealing with the inevitable challenges you will face along the way.
For most people, retirement planning involves primarily financial planning. This makes sense since retirement is a step away from the full-time work that has been your primary source of income.
Worry about finances is a significant source of anxiety and depression in retirement, but many resources and experts are available to help you. This financial planning looks primarily like saving early in your career, and as you near retirement age, it becomes more specific as you consider your income, resources, budget, etc. It also involves getting expert help in negotiating Medicare and Social Security when approaching those milestones.
Diligent efforts in financial planning will help to alleviate a portion of the stress involved and will contribute to improved mental health in retirement, but so much more than finances is involved in retirement planning. Equally important and often neglected is “lifestyle” planning. The first question you will encounter in retirement is, “What will you do with your time?” Common answers to that question are, “I won’t have any trouble filling my time, there is so much I can’t do now,” or later, “I don’t know when I had time to work, I am so busy now.”
These certainly are the experiences of some, but more people than not struggle to fill their time after the honeymoon stage.
Initially escaping the stress and daily grind of your career will feel like a relief, but at some point, the novelty of being on “permanent vacation” will wear off. Common stresses and challenges that new retirees face at this time include:
Feelings of boredom
Social isolation and loneliness
A lack of meaning or sense of purpose
A loss of identity, especially if it was connected to your career
Health challenges due to aging or less activity
Stress in your marriage due to being home all day
If you do not anticipate these challenges and plan for them, you will be more susceptible to clinical forms of anxiety and depression. A compilation of research studies indicates that 28 percent of retirees suffer from some sort of clinical depression. Depression is most common in the first few years where you are adjusting to the change and loss that accompanies retirement. In a different survey, 40 percent of retirees — mostly men — report feeling depressed. Planning for the stresses and challenges of retirement can help you to thrive in retirement instead of merely survive. Here are five strategies for a successful retirement.
Retiring from your career in any form involves some amount of loss. Whether you are choosing retirement or forced into it, whether you are merely shifting to part-time work, or whether you are moving onto a well-planned retirement adventure, loss is a part of these transitions. Your work life had positive and negative aspects, just as you will find about your retirement life. Acknowledge that. Accept that loss involves feelings. There is no right way to feel. Allow yourself to feel them all. Feel the fear, sadness, or worry, along with the happiness and excitement. Talk with others about the loss and the feelings associated with the loss.
Choose a healthy attitude. Remind yourself that you are on a journey of retiring from one thing to do something else. Things will happen along the way that you cannot change, so work to accept them and surrender the things you are powerless over. Focus your energy on that which is within your control.
Many of us, whether good or bad, define ourselves by what we do — our roles in life. Retirement will require on some level that you redefine your identity. Do remember that your significance and your value are not in what you do. Rather, these things are a product of the type of person you are. Retirement can be a new opportunity to become a better person.
Lastly, set new goals. So many of your goals were about getting to retirement. Retirement is an opportunity to pursue accomplishments that you did not have time for previously — an opportunity to try new activities.
Develop Meaningful Activity
We are created to be involved in meaningful activity. When you worked, you had that. It will be important in retirement to choose other/different meaningful activity. You could choose “bridge employment.” This is part-time employment following retirement from your full-time career. Research has shown that those who choose bridge employment have better mental and physical health outcomes in early retirement.
Many possibilities exist for meaningful activity. Volunteering is a common meaningful activity chosen in retirement. Just because you left your career doesn’t mean that you don’t have much to offer the world. The good news is that you have more choices as to what and where you can offer yourself.
You might now pursue hobbies for which you never had time. Resurrect old interests or explore new ones. Learning something new, or developing a new skill or hobby, will help to keep your brain active and healthy. Travel is another meaningful activity that can be very rewarding. It is one of the more common activities in which retirees engage, especially new ones.
Grow Your Social Life
Isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness, and both are significant contributors to the onset of depression. It is a serious risk once you retire. For many, their social interaction has been predominantly at work. Retirement is an opportunity to create new or deepen existing social contacts. While making new friends might feel stressful to you, the benefit is worth the effort.
A great way to grow your social life is through the meaningful activity in which you will choose to engage. Classes, clubs, and volunteer organizations are ways to be involved in something meaningful and to increase social contact.
While social interaction is important, deeper meaningful relationships are also important. Retirement can be an opportunity to deepen the relationships you already have with friends and family. You might even have opportunities to work to repair broken relationships.
For many couples, retirement is a crossroad. You will likely spend much more time together. It can be a time to reconnect in your marriage and deepen your friendship in your latter years. Left unattended, your marriage could become a significant stressor. Putting in the work to grow your marriage helps to make retirement more satisfying as you will have a partner with whom to journey.
Prioritize Your Physical Health
A connection between our physical and mental health definitely exists. Working on both is an important part of healthy living throughout our lives and should be a priority in your retirement journey. Neglect of either is likely to cause problems in the other.
Having good physical health is fairly straightforward. Get enough quality sleep, eat a balanced healthy diet, get regular exercise that fits your current state of health, and don’t consume excessive alcohol. Having more time on your hands could make managing these activities easier or more challenging. Your mindset will determine which it is.
Often, much less attention is focused on how to have good mental health. Managing stress levels is important. The stress of retirement will be different from the stress when you were working and the demands of your career. Areas to pay attention to will include the relationship stress with your spouse as you spend time together and roles are renegotiated. Changes to your financial picture could be stressful. If you are dealing with declining health, this will add new stress. Be aware of these stressors. Anticipate them, plan for them, talk about them, and get help with them when needed. Practice gratitude, relaxation, and surrender. Spending time in nature can help you to be more connected and present.
Focus on End of Life and Existential Issues
Focusing on your spiritual health is also important. Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, the transition into retirement will raise end-of-life issues. While these can be difficult to face, those who do have been shown to have more enjoyment and peace in retirement.
With some focus, you can make the “unexpected” challenges of retirement “expected.” In doing so, you can truly enjoy the journey of your retirement!
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family, and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies.