Being the author of a book about transitions in later life, I am always on the lookout for new information about this topic. I recently attended a face-to-face class called Retirement-Now What? that focused on the same transitions I wrote about.

The class begins with two questions for each participant: are you in retirement? and are you happy?

When it was my turn to respond, I reiterated a long-standing description of my current status: “No, I am not in retirement. I am a full-time financial education entrepreneur.”

I also stated I was happy because I love my work, my short commute, my new house in Florida, and the flexibility I have to take time off to have lunch with neighbors, play bocce, or enjoy other pursuits.

Unfortunately, not all participants felt the same way. A 74-year-old man stated he was unhappy with his life, three recent moves, a spouse that “doesn’t want to do anything,” and his wife’s dog that keeps him tied to his house.

He also noted that he missed the creativity and connections that he received from his previous job.

A former nurse (for 42 years) stated that she was “bored out of her mind” and “borderline depressed.” She missed her career and the sense that she was helping others. Another participant had a husband with dementia and was angry that she was forced to retire before she planned. Someone else noted that her husband died in an unhappy state shortly after retiring: “he never developed a sense of himself and golf got boring.”

As each participant shared their story, the 84-year-old instructor shared tips from psychological research (she was a former psychology professor!) and her own lived experience. Her basic message was that retirement is a process and that people’s lives will change many times throughout later life. Below are eight take-aways from the class discussion:

Retirement Can be Stressful

Program participants noted financial and social/emotional challenges. According to the widely used Social Readjustment Rating Scale (a.k.a., Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale), retirement is #10 on a list of 43 stressful life events including death of a spouse (#1), divorce (#2), marriage (#7), and being fired at work (#8).

There Are Many Changes

Participants mentioned living on a reduced income, changes in social interactions, time use challenges (i.e., having nowhere to go), no boss telling them what to do, casual wardrobe changes, and the realization that they are in the last part of their life and may be buying things (e.g., a car or appliance) for the last time.

Identity Loss is Common

When people exit the workforce, they are no longer whatever career role they were before. It is important to replace things that are missing such as new friends and activities (especially in a new location) and new outlets for creativity and service (e.g., freelance work and volunteerism).

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Retirement is a State of Mind

Retirement is the beginning of a new chapter of life- not the end of it. A key to success is deciding how to approach it and what to do with big chunks of free time that become available. Many retirees want to feel productive, useful, and of value/service to others; so finding ways to make contributions is an important task in later life. As people change over time (e.g., 60s to 80s), people around them can change also.

Time Use Planning is Essential

People need structure. The program facilitator suggested organizing time into chunks (e.g., meals, reading, exercise) to avoid feeling totally “adrift.” Time-shift daily activities as needed according to weather conditions (e.g., cold winters and hot summers), medical appointments, and other scheduling needs.

Experimentation is OK

Try new things and see what sticks. Continue activities you like and drop those that you don’t. Unlike workplace situations, there is no pressure in retirement to do things perfectly and not make mistakes.

The stress that many people feel in retirement is stress that they, themselves, create.

The Past is in the Past

Nobody cares (much) about what retirees used to do. This is a difficult transition for many people and contributes to feelings of isolation, uselessness, and “being put out to pasture.” Some of the happiest retirees practice “identity bridging” and find ways to carry over parts of their pre-retirement life into their later years.

Key Questions to Ask

The presenter suggested answering the following questions when deciding how to create your life in retirement:

  • Did (Do) I really want to retire?
  • How do I feel about it deep inside?
  • Who wanted to retire: me or someone else (e.g., a spouse)?
  • How do I see myself right now?
  • How do I imagine my new life?
  • What are my talents?
  • What do I like to do?
  • Is there anything I want to do at 30 and never got around to?
  • What dreams did I not follow?
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