Retirement from the job doesn’t mean retirement from living. Filling the retirement years meaningfully is one of the most important factors in a sense of having lived a great life.
What is your image of a retired person? Many who have not yet reached that age think of stereotypes: the former executive in a rocking chair with his newly issued gold watch…the couple zipping down the highway in their RV with a “We’re Spending Our Children’s Inheritance” bumper sticker…the widow who sits at home waiting for the grandchildren to visit….
The reality is, there are as many styles of retirement as there are retirees—and the million-plus Baby Boomers who turn 65 each year are reshaping retirement even more.
Most people look forward to retirement as a time of well-earned leisure and relaxation. Many have planned a financial strategy, including contingency plans for some of the negative things that might happen—a downturn in health, a loved one who requires caregiving, loss of a spouse, a change in the economy.
But research suggests that one aspect of retirement that most of us look forward to can also hold some negative effects. It’s a sure bet that some rest and relaxation are on your retirement “to do” list…but many retirees are surprised to find out that leaving work creates a “vocation gap” in our later years.
Many seniors are continuing to work for economic reasons. But it’s not just about the money. Ending one’s working years can carry a surprising number of pitfalls relating to a loss of what we might call “a sense of vocation.” “Vocation” doesn’t just mean one’s work; it refers to all the things that give us a sense of purpose. Did you know that gerontologists predict that one of the greatest health challenges baby boomers will face is depression? Sometimes there is a physical cause behind the sense of sadness and lethargy…but in many cases, depression is triggered by boredom and a loss of purposefulness. Here are some facts about the emotional aspects of retirement to think about as you plan for your retirement years:
Retirement is one of the big “life-changing events,” right up there with marriage, your first job, becoming a parent or the death of a loved one. People adjust to change in their own way—and even “change for the better” can be stressful.
Retirement can mean a loss of social context. Even if your co-workers drove you crazy sometimes…or if you didn’t socialize much at the office…or if your workplace relationships stayed firmly in the workplace…your job still probably included a lot of contact with other people. Even the self-employed generally have frequent contact with customers or clients. Removing that social context can leave a sudden gap.
Confidence and self-esteem often stem from work accomplishments. What’s the first thing people ask when they meet someone new at a party? Often as not, it’s “What do you do? Who do you work for?” Most adults consider their jobs to be an integral part of their identity, so finding an updated answer to that party question can be an important “task” of our later years.
Some retirees experience a sense of purposelessness. When you retire, the good news is that you are far more in charge of your own time…the bad news is, you have to provide all the structure yourself! Over the years, many of us become so wrapped up in our work that we neglect to cultivate outside interests. Work can be all-consuming, the main focus of our entire adult lives. Some retirees report feeling useless, as if “there’s nothing to wake up for in the morning.”
Retirement can mean a big change in family relationships. You’ve probably heard the old jokes about the wife who suddenly has to cope with the retired husband being underfoot all day. Nowadays, of course, it is just as likely to be the opposite. Then throw into the mix elderly parents and in-laws, adult children and grandchildren…whatever the dynamic of a family, retirement means a disruption of established patterns.
Retirement is a risk factor for inactivity. Research shows that physical activity is the most important contributor to healthy aging. For some people, retirement means more time to be active…but others find themselves evolving into couch potatoes. And depression is a real danger when we cut back on physical—and mental—activity.
Cultivating a Sense of Purpose Throughout Life
Researchers suggest several steps for transitioning into the retirement years active, engaged, and ready to make the most of what for many of us turns out to be a full third of our lives. And no matter how long you’ve been away from the workplace, it’s never too late to give your retirement ideas a “makeover”!
- Plan ahead. You know the importance of having a financial and healthcare plan in place. Add to that a strategy for enhancing your life with meaningful activities. Check out pre-retirement planning courses through your local senior center. Find out if your employer offers retirement planning counseling.
- On the other hand, allow for flexibility. Should you stay in the home or move to a retirement community? Move to a different area, perhaps to be near children, or for recreational opportunities? There are plenty of choices to be made—but in most cases, you don’t need to make them right away.
- Consider retiring in stages. More and more baby boomers are finding that leaving their jobs altogether might not be the best strategy. Many boomers are cutting back their work hours gradually. Others move into consulting work, or even begin an entirely new career path. Still others take lower-key part-time jobs. The fact is, financial realities and increased life expectancy make working beyond 65 a necessity for many…and many others simply do not choose to leave the workforce.
- Give from the heart by volunteering! Paid employment isn’t the only rewarding work. For many seniors, retirement allows the opportunity for giving back to the community. Consider working for an important cause, serving as a mentor, enjoying unpaid work for cultural institutions, or helping in a wide variety of volunteer agencies. What a great way to make new social contacts!
- Learn new skills, take up new hobbies. Many retirees report that they have “reinvented” themselves after leaving their career of many years. Retirement offers the luxury of time—at last you can pay more attention to those things that have always seemed interesting. Write a novel or your memoirs, learn a language, join a gym, take a class—the opportunities are limitless. Lifelong learning need not be expensive: check out community colleges, senior centers and other programs to find learning opportunities that are meaningful to you.
- Work out a schedule. After those first few weeks of sleeping late and lounging around the house, many retirees find that it is easy to lapse into inactivity. Plan to apply some of the same kind of discipline to your days that you always have. Working out a routine is a great way to avoid the pitfall of depression.
- Increase rather than decrease your level of physical activity. Exercise is one of the key factors to successful aging—so banish the thought of setting up residence in that lounge chair! One of the best uses of your increased leisure time is to up your exercise level, which can help control or prevent many physical and emotional conditions that become more common with aging. This is a great time to try those sports and activities you never could quite make time for.
- Build new relationships. Another key component to quality of life as we age is being involved in activities and relationships with others. Retirement provides more time to spend in activities with family and old friends…but it’s also a great time to expand our social network by forming new connections. Yet another reason to add new activities and interests!
Yes, it has almost become a cliché that “turning 65 is not an ending but a beginning.” Retirement from the job doesn’t mean retirement from living. Instead, once we are handed the precious gift of more control of our time, to fill those hours meaningfully is one of the most important factors in a sense of having lived a great life.
Copyright © AgeWise, 2014