Volume 20, Number 1
Jan/Feb 2003


Are You the Retiring Type

By Jeffrey Fortgang

Retirement seems far away except to those already in it, or about to be. Some of us may have a vague sense that, at some point, we will make the transition from focusing on work to savoring our senior years. We may carefully monitor whether we've saved enough to live on, but the actual picture of how our days would be spent may remain hazy: taking it easy, traveling or playing golf, reading, sipping a tropical drink.
Like it or not, it may be time to snap out of the fantasy and deal with the reality. Even if you've done the necessary financial planning, you might find yourself unprepared to deal with the psychological, interpersonal, and lifestyle changes that will characterize your golden years. For some, entering retirement can be more like a voyage to a new land than a vacation: Welcome to your new retired life! That job that structured your life and priorities? It's gone. That profession that defined much of your identity and served as a source of esteem? It's a memory. Those colleagues you saw and spoke with more than some friends or family? They're still busy working, and no, they're not staying in touch. The free time you always longed for? Now you have it. What are you going to do with it?

Potential Pitfalls
A Cornell University study concluded that after retirement, both men and women are vulnerable to depression and marital strain. Long stretches of time with a spouse after years of seeing each other just a few hours a day can make for discomfort, annoyance, and an acute awareness of your partner's worst characteristics. A newly retired woman is more prone to depression than working women or those who never worked-especially if she does not feel satisfied in a relationship. For men (typically more oriented toward tasks than relationships) too much unoccupied time often triggers a mood plunge. Although single (or single-again) people do not face the marital challenges, it's equally important for them to develop new social networks and avocations to keep the brain active.
Remember that reference to the tropical drink? Unfortunately, retirement often engenders a surge of alcoholism, even in people with no prior addictive history. Suddenly there are more hours per day to sit and enjoy a drink, or two, or five. Many retirement communities offer "happy hour" or otherwise present drinking as an expected part of social occasions. Retirees may increasingly turn to alcohol as a means of coping with stresses such as loss (of friends, kids who move away, health, etc.) and loneliness. Because older bodies metabolize alcohol more slowly, it's actually more appropriate for drinking to decrease at this stage rather than increase. Older people also take more medications, and alcohol can interact dangerously with these or inhibit their helpful effects.
Seniors who drink heavily triple their risk of clinical depression and are 16 times more likely to die by suicide than peers who consume little or no alcohol. Drinking problems are often harder to spot in the context of a retiree's lifestyle, compared with a younger person whose alcohol-related impairments might show up at work, in domestic situations, etc. Alcohol abuse, however, can contribute to a wide range of negative effects, including malnutrition, heart failure, impairment of cognitive processing, mood swings, car accidents, falls and fractures (all too common in older adults), and generally poor self-care. Concurrent use of tranquilizers (such as Valium, Klonopin, Ativan, or Xanax), perhaps too frequently prescribed, amplifies these dangers.

Making Up for Lost Time
Despite these potential pitfalls, retirement can provide a wonderful opportunity to partake of aspects of life that most of us neglect while focusing on careers. It can be a time to find new fulfillment in our interpersonal and physical environments, to take more time to observe and reflect, to put our lives into more meaningful
contexts. To help you accentuate these positives, keep in mind the following recommendations:
Avoid an abrupt end of work. Phase out if possible and/or transition to a part-time job. Consider doing volunteer work.
Begin developing a new social network before you retire-join a new organization or participate in a church activity, for example.
Look realistically, long before your actual retirement date, at your upcoming financial picture (income, costs, and lifestyle expectations).
Make a list of your interests, hobbies, activities, etc. Don't wait until you're retired to start thinking about how you'll spend your time. Include a few things you always wanted to try but never did.
Your image of life in a new location may or may not prove accurate. To forestall committing to an environment that doesn't suit you, visit or vacation in the new enue before making the move.
Although we all crave more free time, most people flounder without structure. Develop and commit to a daily and weekly schedule. Include exercise and fun activities in your agenda.
Breathe new life into your marriage or other close relationship. Work on enhancing your capacity to listen, negotiate, empathize, etc. Some couples enjoy taking on new challenges together (e.g., education, travel, dance lessons, civic action).
Many of us may actually spend more time planning a vacation or a work-related conference than preparing for this important stage of life. In fact, advance planning is crucial to making retirement a fulfilling postscript to a career-focused life.

Back to Top