Thursday, July 10, 2014

Retirement's Moments of Quiet Desperation

There was a time when the dream of retirement fired imaginations: with visions of a better life, a happier life, in a resort setting or simply relaxing in a long-time home, lingering over coffee, no alarm clocks, no demanding bosses, no office politics -- just a sort of endless, delicious summer where one's life would be one's own.

For some, retirement is this dream fulfilled.

For others, there are moments of quiet desperation, despite lovely settings and abundant leisure time.

There are those who find that their money is disappearing much faster than they ever imagined and that they may need to go back to work at an age when employers are less welcoming and physical limitations may preclude most work possibilities.

There are those who are increasingly distressed by diminished physical capabilities, by the aches and pains and limitations of age.

There are those who find time hanging heavy. They don't know what to do with themselves -- and may regret leaving the work force.

There are those who feel trapped in a marriage that worked, somehow, before retirement because the couple didn't spend much time together. I've seen such desperation in the couple who hunker down at the local McDonald's or Starbucks: he on his cellphone, she clipping coupons for hours on end without any interaction with each other. There was a couple in a doctor's waiting room, she on oxygen, he looking distant and grim and they were sniping at each other. There are couples, too, who readily admit that they are sick of each other but can't afford to divorce, unable to live on divided assets.

All of these issues take on more urgency because of the serial losses of aging and letting go and, at the same time, because of a sense of limited time and resources. The window of opportunity for new beginnings is closing and the choice, for many, seems to be between striking out in a late-life change or accepting what is, however unsatisfactory that may feel.

Some of these moments of quiet desperation are, at least in part, the result of planning based on fantasy:  that there would be enough money somehow, that happiness would come with freedom, that less than perfect relationships would transform in a new setting or lifestyle.

And these moments of desperation come when the fantasies fail to blossom into reality -- and when reality shows some harsh truths: that one's body isn't what it used to be and one is unlikely to morph from coach potato to super-athlete with a little more gym time; that the money required to maintain your working lifestyle is not enough and you're faced with a choice of changing your expectations or going back to work; that negative relationships and relationship patterns are unlikely to change without hard work from both of you -- or some hard choices; that focusing solely on self and pleasure isn't the key to nirvana.

Adjusting to the gap between expectations and reality, making your life in retirement work for you may take some major changes on your part. Even changes that feel small can make a big difference.

Some steps that could make a positive difference:

Want what you have.  Instead of dreaming of the unattainable or looking back with longing on a former lifestyle fueled by two good incomes, take a look with gratitude at what you have now: a roof over your head, healthy food, the freedom to create life anew, the love of friends and family and treasured pets. Life can feel wonderful when you live with gratitude for what you have.

Find beauty where you are.  Maybe you dreamed of retiring to a seaside cottage or a cool urban condo and found both out of your reach. So you're living in the same old house in the same old suburb or in a modest condo, apartment or mobile home. Or perhaps you're living in a nice new retirement home in a strange new place -- maybe simply a new town in a different state or maybe in a manufactured oasis in the middle of a desert. Adjusting to what is and looking around with new eyes, you can begin to appreciate the comfort of your long-time home and familiar surroundings. You can take a deep breath and vow to discover all the positives in your new home town -- even if you've relocated to a place that suddenly feels desolate. If you let yourself, you can find beauty in the uniqueness of a desert environment or a busy urban area or the singular charm of a smaller town. When you open your heart to what is, disappointments can turn to joy.

To improve your relationship, try acting and reacting in different ways.  You don't get positive change by repeating those same old behaviors over and over. So try something new.

Do thoughtful things for each other instead of staying locked into gender roles.  A friend of mine told me recently that her across the street neighbor, who has severely arthritic hands, had called her during the dinner hour and asked her come lift a cooking pot filled with water and pasta to the sink for draining and rinsing. The woman's husband was sitting in a lounger not 10 feet from the stove. But he felt that anything to do with cooking and kitchen duty was women's work.

Look at nagging in a new way. If the nagging is about your health and less than ideal lifestyle habits, instead of bristling, try seeing the love and caring behind the grousing.

Have a serious, loving talk and enlist each other's help in overcoming bad habits -- like snapping at each other or tuning each other out or cutting each other off conversationally during social events. Agree on a subtle signal that says "Please stop!" at the first sign of irritation triggers or excessive and pointless criticism. This isn't a matter of convincing your spouse to act in a more civil manner. Monitor your own behavior, note what needs to change and see if your relationship doesn't improve.

Change your focus to making life better for others. We all have aches, pains, limitations and disappointments as we enter the later decades of life. But these seem less onerous if we shift our focus to others: perhaps peers less fortunate than we are, perhaps to younger family members who could use a helping hand, loving guidance and affirmation, perhaps to strangers in need -- people who are homeless, those in hospitals, children needing extra help in the classroom, animals in need of rescuing or fostering. There is so much that needs to be done to make life easier for those around us. We're limited only by our willingness to get involved. With volunteer work, a small business or an expanded hobby, with a desire to help others, we can help ourselves as well.

There are, of course, some moments of quiet desperation that are triggered by tragic turns in our lives and aren't so easily solved simply with attitude adjustments or small changes. But for many of the disappointments and moments of disillusionment that come as we settle into retirement, it's important to remember that happiness in retirement isn't automatic because wherever you go, there you are. Your emotional baggage and habits and behavior patterns follow you wherever you go. So take a look around ....and open your eyes, your heart and your mind... and see what a difference you can make in your own life and the lives of those around you.


  1. So true. I am one of those going backwards. I was a SAHM for over 25 years and have just recently entered the workforce teaching computer to elementary students. My shelf life will be short. Ha! I'm also stuck in one of those marriages and can't get out due to finances. But I'm also remembering to be grateful that there is a roof over my head, that I have heat when it's cold and air when it's hot, that I have water, etc. And I have my health. Being aware of these things does help. As does shifting my focus to others. This is a wonderful post!

    1. Thanks so much. I think we all bring our challenges and our gifts to retirement and, as you say, gratitude for the blessings can help a lot.

  2. Amen... Well put, Kathy. It's all about our attitudes. We need to take what we have and make the best of it. We need to put our emphasis on others rather than on ourselves. We need to give up the pity parties.... Life can be hard.. We just need to make the best of ours.


    1. Betsy, you're absolutely right: no pity parties! Attitude is everything. I see some people here who see only ugliness and some who see incredible beauty. Life is so much happier when one can see the beauty in all things.

  3. Thank you for setting out, so cogently, solutions to this multifaceted problem. The "quiet desperation" seems single and seamless when it descends, but it does have accesses --practical inroads and service ports-- that respond well to those who open their hearts, minds and do not yield to the temptation of blaming others. It takes time. I find it an absorbing retirement project that I can do sitting down.

    1. Thanks, Geo! You bring up an important point: not blaming others. And it does take time. And some never get there. But it's a project worth attempting.

  4. Goodness! If this weren't so well written and clear-headed, I'd say you are trying to depress the heck out of us. While I agree with all these assessments, and the resourceful assistance you provided, I tend to think that people act out more or less in retirement as they did in their younger years. The planners keep on planning; the complainers keep on complaining; and the dreamers keep on dreaming. Those who learned to embrace change will do better at adapting than the rest;but, adapting we all must.

    What we all need is a phone app. for "senior issues".

    1. Oh, Rosaria, you're so right and state this so wonderfully! Some people will always complain, bicker and be at odds with the world and themselves. And some adapt wonderfully. But I'm hoping some of those in the middle -- open to change -- may find this helpful. But you're right that the litany of depressing situations can depress the heck of one! After hearing and seeing a lot of these from neighbors and friends and acquaintances here, I started writing this a long time ago, but kept putting it aside -- because it was so depressing! Thanks so much for your visit, kind words and wonderfully clear assessment!

  5. Kathy....such a WISE post today.....'LOVING WHAT IS" is a good philosophy for retirement...don't you agree?



  6. I think our instincts were right when we decided to stay in our same location after retirement - at least for most of the year. Four months away in the winter, to a sunny place, makes all the difference.

    Good post!

  7. Like all your post I need to read and reread this until it sinks in because I felt like you wrote this for your friend Maggie.
    Thank you for this post. I have been so depressed about where I am at this age that it keeps me from living the life of gratitude that I want to live.
    I am grateful that I am still healthy enough to work and keep a roof over my head.
    I ordered your book and can not wait to read it. You inspire me to be a better person and I love that I have you as a friend out here in this world of blogging.
    Maybe you can do a post for my little site and promote your book.
    Love ya

  8. I'm 56 and still have teens at home. My walking group friends are between 62 and 64 - empty nesters with grandkids. I listen to the stories of their lives and even my mother's, who is 81, only to learn that retirement isn't necessarily Utopia. Actually, most of the time it isn't. It seems to me that we're all at the mercy of our natural temperaments. Money, retirement, good health... or the opposites, don't seem to fully dictate our lives; but temperaments do.

    Good advice in this post for those of us who are not naturally perky and optimistic. We have to do the things that you suggest in this post and MAKE it happen for us.

    Btw, thankfully, I lean more towards having more good days than bad; more smiles than frowns. :)

  9. I can't believe I missed this when it was posted but from the dates it was while I was on an internet break! Boy, do these words ring true. So far, it has been everything I hoped for, all I could have wanted. I'm still not bored, dissatisfied or broke, happier with Rick than ever and full of joy and health. But I know it isn't that way for everyone, not always easy and at some point it may not be for me, either. Till then, I hold my breath and get ready to celebrate my first year in another week and a half!