Retirement Can Be a Tough Psychological Adjustment. Here Are Some Ways to Adapt.
Four years into retirement, 72-year-old Steven McDermott isn’t living the life he imagined. Instead of flying off to Rome, he’s in an assisted-living facility in Manhattan feeling trapped.
A series of misfortunes have contributed to McDermott’s disappointment. Though he worked at various jobs throughout his life and contributed to a 401(k), he ended up in debt and was evicted after some problems with his mother’s estate, he says. His two brothers died not long after he retired, and his health has deteriorated. He’s undergoing kidney dialysis and suffers from glaucoma.
“The problem is that I feel useless,” McDermott says. “I’ve worked since I was 12 years old. I’m used to going out and making money.”
Retirees often face a loss of identity—who am I if I am not a practicing physician anymore?—or purpose. Many experience a void with the loss of structure in their lives, feel useless or unwanted with little meaningful engagement in society, or suffer feelings of isolation once they lose the social network that came with their job.
“We are all concerned about our financial portfolio, understandably, but one’s psychological portfolio is just as important,” says Nancy Schlossberg, an author and lecturer who specializes in retirement and coping with transitions. “That means your psychological identity, your relationships, your purpose. Those are the things that change as you retire.”
These issues may affect retirees regardless of how wealthy they are or how high-powered their career was. And with people living longer, they’re taking on added importance, experts say.
But there are steps people can take to help lay the groundwork for a fulfilling retirement, psychologists and advisors who work with retirees say.
Try On Retirement
Those who retire to get away from something, such as an overwhelming job or an annoying boss, as opposed to retiring to something, are often disappointed, says Patti Black, a partner at Bridgeworth, a wealth-management firm in Birmingham, Ala.
“If you’re in a career or a workplace where you can transition slowly into retirement, maybe you can practice before going into it,” she says. If you envision traveling the U.S. in a recreational vehicle, for example, you might try renting an RV for a few weeks first. “You might like it or find that it’s not at all what you thought it would be,” she says.
Because formal phased-retirement programs are fairly uncommon, those without the flexibility to take such a break can at least take time to envision their retirement years, Black says. Consider whether you want to stay where you are or move and how you will fill your days once your job is gone, she advises. Talking with a retirement coach who specializes in the nonfinancial part of the transition, a financial advisor, or others who have retired can also be helpful, she says.
Even dedicating time to hobbies on weekends may aid in the transition. Schlossberg once interviewed a newspaper reporter who had no trouble segueing into retirement. While working, he spent his Sundays painting. Days after leaving his newspaper, he moved into a studio, and he eventually had a show of his works. “This was his true love and retirement was easy for him,” she says.
Adapt and Evolve
The first three to six months of retirement may be an exciting period in which retirees check off all the activities they have longed to pursue for years, Black says. But after that honeymoon period, “then it’s ‘I have a lot of time; what am I going to do with it?’ ” she says. That may begin a period of trial and error, she says.
Retirements must evolve because everything won’t work out as planned, says Carolyn Taylor, president of Weatherly Asset Management, an investment-management firm in Del Mar, Calif. One of her clients, who worked in the biotech industry and had a very busy family life, trained before retirement to become a master gardener. As she trained, she found that she enjoyed teaching others and finally became a teacher of gardening, Taylor says.
Retirees who feel they have no purpose are more likely to find themselves at a loss or feeling depressed, says Black. Taking on part-time work, going back to school, volunteering, or participating in philanthropic endeavors can make retirees feel that they’re still making an important contribution.
Bringing the enjoyable aspects of your work into your retirement life can be helpful, says Black. “Maybe you enjoy mentoring young people; perhaps you can find a way to continue doing that into retirement,” she says.
Indeed, volunteering and part-time work can be gratifying, says Eve Markowitz Preston, a psychologist in Manhattan who works with many retirees. “It’s hard to be depressed if you’re helping someone else,” she says. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘But I can’t even stand.’ Many jobs can be done from a seated position; for example, reading to a child at a library.”
With people living longer and remaining healthier as they age, some retirees may have to reinvent their lives several times, experts say. Those who are best able to adapt are the most likely to remain content.
Jerry Moebes, of Decatur, Ala., retired from his job at a major life-insurance company in 2006. Now 78, he says he is enjoying retirement largely because he has remained flexible and open to new experiences.
For years before he retired, Moebes had been restoring and selling antique furniture, and he planned to continue doing so in retirement. But during the recession, prices dropped and he hasn’t been selling since 2009. Now, he says, “it’s mostly buying, restoring, and giving.”
Moebes also dove into researching his family history after retirement, a project he completed and shared with his children, he says.
While his wife has some health issues and doesn’t enjoy some of the activities he likes, Moebes has worked around that, filling his life with friends and family. He now works out at a gym five or six days a week, and has recruited two former classmates to accompany him. One of those friends is taking tai chi, and Moebes now joins him to practice the martial art on some days. On Friday nights, he participates in a line dancing class. In addition, he keeps up the small vegetable garden that he has had each year since before he retired, and bikes frequently, he says.
Three or four years ago, he began traveling, and has taken trips to Italy, Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Yellowstone National Park with his two adult daughters, and to Colorado to fish with his grandson. He also sailed down the Danube River with his wife and two friends, he says. Because he was so busy working when his daughters were young, he’s savoring the time he spends with them now, and is looking forward to additional trips to Europe with family members, he says.
Maintaining your health and retiring debt-free is key, he says, but so is keeping busy. “I would be having a very difficult retirement if I didn’t have all these separate interests,” he says.