By Kate Benzin
Did you think retirement was like an on/off switch? One day, you’re working with structure and purpose in your life. Then the next day, you’re living the happy, carefree, well-adjusted life of a retiree. You’d better think again.
People often dream that retirement is going to be the golden period of life when they’re going to do all the activities that they didn’t have time to do while still working. Unfortunately, the reality is that a ‘golden’ retirement doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes planning and action on your part to make your retirement dream come true.
Every major change in a person’s life comes with a time of emotional adjustment. If you think back on your life, you’ll probably recognize the emotional impact that previous life changing events caused you. Maybe marriage, divorce, loss of a loved one, moving to a new city.
Life changing events like these have been studied and researched by scientists, therapists, religious personnel. You can go into any bookstore and find a plethora of self-help books on those topics.
You’ll even find books about retirement, but those books are mainly about how to manage your finances so that you’ll have enough money to live comfortably when you retire. Until recently, though, the psychological impact of retirement was not the subject of extensive research, partly because retirement was not a large portion of a person’s life.
The age for full retirement benefits was set at 65 by the government in the original Social Security Act of 1935, and the program began paying monthly benefits in 1940. Here is some interesting information about life expectancy then – and now. The life expectancy for me in 1940 was 77.7. In 2015, the life expectancy is 84.3. Women in 1940 lived to 79.7, while in 2015 it increased to 86.6.
You can see that life expectancy for people who actually reach the age of 65 has increased significantly. That means you can expect your golden years to be longer than ever before and that both the financial and the psychological aspects of retirement planning are more important than ever before.
Today, psychologists recognize that retirement is a major period in a person’s life, and they have begun to research the psychological impact of retirement. In 1975, Robert Atchley, a professor of gerontology, identified seven stages of retirement which have now been pared down to six.
Becoming familiar with the six stages of retirement can help you recognize and even deal with the psychological changes that you are currently experiencing or will experience in the future.
Stage 1 – Pre-Retirement – Planning
Most of your life is actually ‘pre-retirement.’ If you are like a lot of people, you rarely thought about retirement until it started getting close. After all, when you’re young and starting on a career path or perhaps starting a family, it’s natural for retirement to be the last thing on your mind.
Then, as retirement age started getting closer, you eventually got more serious about planning. You spent time to analyze your 401k and other retirement savings.
You may even have gotten pretty excited about the day you would quit working. You began thinking about all the places you would travel to, the diy projects you would finally have time for, the friends you would be able to see more often, perhaps even the television shows you would catch up on. Does that sound familiar? You could hardly wait.
Stage 2 – Retirement – the ‘Honeymoon’
Then, you did it. You had a retirement party or dinner and worked the last day on your job. What a relief – you’re free!
And that freedom put you on an emotional high. You no longer set an alarm to startle you out of bed early. You fill your day with whatever projects interest you. Some days you even just lie around and binge watch your favorite television shows. What a life!
Stage 3 – Disenchantment
This high doesn’t last forever. You looked forward to this kind of freedom for such a long time that you don’t understand where the feelings of disillusionment are coming from
Most people begin to question their decision to retire.
- Did I retire too soon?
- Should I have waited until I was better off financially?
- What if the stock market tanks and wipes out a lot of my savings? How will I survive then?
- Why do I feel like such a slug?
- Why am I so bored?
If you’ve started asking yourself questions like these, then you’ve started to become disenchanted with retirement. You might not recognize that you miss the structure and feelings of productivity that your job gave you. Does that surprise you? It can be quite a shock.
A friend told me a story about her grandparents from many years ago. They lived in Chicago all their adult lives but bought five acres in central Illinois for their retirement. They moved into their new home in the fall when her grandfather was 65.
It turned out that fall was not the best time to move to their new, small farm because her grandfather didn’t have enough work to keep him occupied over the winter. Because of his boredom and lack of structure, he started drinking and soon was getting drunk every day.
When the family realized what was going after my friend drove down to visit in February, no one knew what to do. It was clear that her grandmother had had enough and was on the verge of leaving him after almost 50 years of marriage.
My friend’s grandparents had retired with enough money to live comfortably, but they weren’t prepared for how retirement would affect her grandfather. Her grandmother had plenty to keep her busy over that first winter with her indoor hobbies of sewing and crocheting, but her grandfather received the shock of too many hours and not enough activity.
Then spring came and her grandfather suddenly had an outlet for his pent up energies. He began plowing and planting – and eventually harvesting. The next winter, he had plenty of chores – repairing and cleaning tools. He never again had that problem of too much time on his hands.
Luckily for my friend’s grandparents, their period of disenchantment lasted only a few months. For many, it can last the rest of their lives.
Prepare yourself for this period so that you are able to pass through it with relative ease.
Stage 4 – Reorientation
If you find yourself unhappy with your retirement lifestyle, you are probably taking a serious look at your daily routine and wondering how to improve it. You look for the reasons that you feel dissatisfied with your newfound freedom.
- Do I miss having a regular paycheck? Not really. I have enough money to live comfortably and do some traveling. I even have an emergency fund if catastrophe strikes.
- Do I miss work? Not at all. If I did, I could probably find some part-time work to remind me that I don’t actually want to return to full-time work.
- Do I miss the social part of my job? Well, maybe a little, but not enough to be willing to get a job again.
I was talking to a friend the other day, and she told me that she had started renting her second bedroom to foreign teenagers who were taking a course in English at a nearby private language school. Her first teenager from Vietnam had arrived just a few days prior to our conversation.
In renting a room, she had agreed to provide breakfast and dinner and to act as an unofficial mentor. My friend loves cooking, and she was thrilled to have someone to praise her culinary skills.
I knew that she’d been worried about finances, so I thought this was a fantastic solution. My friend loves being around people, especially those who have experience in foreign countries because she loves hearing about foreign cultures.
So having teens from overseas in her home was a solution that seemed to have been made specially for her, but she surprised me when she described the best benefit of the arrangement.
She was happy to earn some extra money, but she explained that feeling productive again was her real reward. She was doing something that made her feel good – not because of the money, but because she was helping someone in an important endeavor.
Stage 5 – Retirement Routine
Once you’ve explored some new activities, you’re sure to find some that suit you and give you new purpose.
Little by little, you will hopefully establish a thriving lifestyle that will truly be your golden life.
Stage 6 – Termination of Retirement
This stage, unfortunately, cannot be avoided and needs to be planned for in advance. A time will likely come when you cannot continue living independently. Be sure that written information is in place to guide your remaining family members on medical decisions and how to deal with your finances.
There are no clear lines that delineate passing from one stage to another. Stages overlap with each other, and you may go backward from time to time before going forward again. Understanding the process and planning for obstacles before they arise make for a smoother transition.
No matter what stage you are at, please don’t feel discouraged. Understanding that your retirement experiences and frustrations, even though personal and unique to you, are actually normal can reassure you that you are proceeding along the right track.
Kate is a freelance writer who has lived on the island of Java for the past 30 years. Java became her home when she took a 3-month work assignment to train Indonesians on word processing equipment in Jakarta, and she fell in love with the adventurous lifestyle that she found there. She worked as a tour director in many countries of the world, but she now spends most of her time writing in her home/office in Yogyakarta, Central Java, which she shares with her two whippets and four Dalmatians. You can visit her at KateFreelanceWriter or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.