Sunday, February 28, 2016

Emotional Retirement Planning

Our friend looked wistful when he greeted us the other night. "Ah, the retired crowd...every day a holiday, on a perpetual vacation...I can hardly wait!"

I smiled at his wistfulness. It sounded so similar to what my husband Bob or I might have said a decade ago as we sat through endless commutes, contentious meetings, stressful deadlines and rolled our eyes over office politics.

All these years later, Bob is happily retired and I am happily re-engaged with my career. It works for both of us.

We did a lot of planning and saving in our last 20 working years to make retirement possible. We sought advice from several financial planners and attended retirement seminars. We crunched numbers and made plans to move to a less expensive area.

When we thought of the emotional component of leaving the work that had filled so much of our adult lives from youth to maturity, we thought only of the benefits: no more getting up at 4 a.m., no more commuting, no more office politics. We thought of life as an endless vacation in a spot where we had spent a number of vacation days.

In terms of emotional retirement planning, we simply looked forward to having our time be our own, having more time together.

We have lots of company. So many plan financially but not emotionally for this major life transition.

But planning emotionally can make a major difference. What does it mean to pause and think about what matters to you, what will continue to matter and what goals you might have for the future?


Who will I be without that job title?

For some, the transition to anonymous retirement is welcome. No more titles and no more of the heavy responsibility and headaches that go with those titles. My friend Chuck, who spent most of his adult years as a well-known doctor, is happy living quite differently in retirement. He is a docent at a local television station and an eager participant in a conversational French class that has gone on for two years and introduced him to a whole new group of friends. Even when he has the chance to be interviewed as an expert, he takes a pass. "I love what I'm doing now -- which means sometimes doing nothing at all," he says.

Others chafe at the realities of being retired, suffering from what we call FIPS (or Formerly Important Person Syndrome), boredom or the desire to continue to contribute in some way.

After two years of staring at the t.v. screen and feeling himself growing alarmingly old, one of my neighbors, a former sales executive, became involved in local politics and finds that it has renewed his spirit.

Even when you plan to continue to work part-time or to pursue a passion long neglected, you may find yourself at a crossroads.

While my husband Bob's dream was retirement, mine was to shift my work focus back to my first career and greatest passion: writing. While I had worked for many years as a staff writer and then a busy freelancer, changing times in publishing meant less and less income and the necessity of supporting my writing habit with other employment. For the last 20 years before retirement, I worked primarily as a psychotherapist, relegating my writing to evenings and weekends. When we moved to Arizona, I vowed to make writing the center of my working life again.

However, major changes in the publishing world meant some key decisions: would I be happiest writing primarily for pleasure and possible publication? Or did I envision attempting to recapture the high profile career I had once had?

What has evolved, during six years of blogging and two books published by major publishing houses with another on the horizon, was a hybrid of the above: I decided that, while writing in itself was a pleasure for me and that, while it might prove impossible to duplicate my earlier publishing successes, I wanted to devote my best efforts to working my way back to a thriving writing career. Trying for a high profile career once again has meant much more effort and much less leisure than I originally envisioned for these years. For now, that trade-off feels worth it. Sometime in the next decade, my priorities may change.

What do I want to do instead of the job I'm doing now? Do I want a new career, new or rediscovered hobbies or meaningful volunteer work? Plunging into retirement with no more vision than endless golf and delicious leisure can lead to boredom and loss of purpose in life. While dreams of doing nothing are wonderful when you're battling commutes, office politics and a frantic schedule, they are not sustainable.

What can happen without a plan is what I see so much around me: people listlessly watching t.v. for hours a day; people drinking too much and complaining too much; people expecting adult children and grandchildren to fill the gap that a job and work friends have left with their absence. Too often, they find life feeling meaningless without plans and goals and that adult children have their own lives and responsibilities and can't provide constant or even frequent companionship.

Those with a plan can have rich, satisfying lives of new hobbies and pursuits, new interests, friends and work -- volunteer or part-time paid -- that offers structure and meaning to their lives.

How and where do I want to live? Do I want to age in place or move to a different community? Live near loved ones -- or far away?

Often, it makes sense to just wait and see, settling into retirement and adjusting to that in a familiar place while exploring other possibilities. For some, closeness to family means everything -- and a move away is unthinkable. Others are eager to make retirement dreams happen in a new place -- perhaps in the Sunbelt, perhaps in a retirement haven.

While active adult communities make perfect sense for some people, it's a good idea to spend time checking them out before making a major move. When you find a community that looks like the perfect relocation spot, visit several times in all seasons. Rent temporarily to get a real day-by-day sense of the community before you commit to buying. Ask lots of questions and weigh the answers against your priorities. For example, if you imagine your grandchildren spending a lot of time with you, are they welcome to use the facilities? Or are they restricted to certain limited hours or banned altogether? How would you feel about living surrounded by aging peers? For some, it might mean a sense of camaraderie, a feeling of "We're all in this together!" For others, it may be depressing as the toll of time becomes increasingly apparent.

Bob and I thought we had explored all of these possibilities thoroughly before choosing to sell our California home of 29 years to move to a new active adult community in Arizona that was built with Baby Boomers very much in mind. It's beautiful, has an excellent gym, swimming pools and exercise options as well as offerings in continuing education and any hobby you could imagine. Our initial impression was that it was a friendly place where you could really get to know your neighbors. After a brief stay several years before our move and another month-long one ten months before we left our jobs, we found the perfect house and signed on the dotted line.

In many ways, we have not been disappointed. We love the wide, open spaces and traffic-free country roads. It's hard to beat the workout facilities here. We absolutely love our house, a place we would never have been able to afford in California. And we've made some wonderful friends here.

But some initial impressions can be deceiving. The community tends to be more clique-ish than friendly, populated by an alarming number of aging mean girls. As we age and envision a time, hopefully in the far off future, when we won't be able to drive long distances or at all, we worry about the remoteness of our location. We've found that getting to know neighbors really well isn't always a positive thing. And the difference that six years can make at this age is often alarming.

When we first moved here six years ago, the neighborhood was bustling with excited, healthy, active people. Now we've seen deaths, life-threatening and life-limiting illnesses, descents into dementia and all the less enticing aspects of growing older. And we've found that we're not all in it together -- that some people become quickly disabled while other people, often older, thrive. And even among those who thrive, life can change in an instant.

And we've found that we miss the people we left behind in California -- from family to long-time friends to the special next-door neighbors we took for granted -- much more than we had anticipated.

In quiet moments, Bob and I agree, all things being equal, if we had it to do over, we would choose to stay put in our little California ranch house that was close to everything and everybody. But having made the choice to leave, we focus on the positive and on what we love about where we are. And we admit that, had we not made the move, we might be wondering about that road not taken, about whether life might have been better in a new place. It's a quirk of human nature to wonder. But, most days, we give heart-felt thanks for our six happy years of retirement and career re-invention and tell ourselves that how and where we've chosen to live was simply meant to be.

As you do your emotional retirement planning, you may quickly realize that it's impossible to plan in advance for every eventuality. But it can be important to consider the following:

Expect a sense of disorientation as well as exhilaration post-retirement. Joe, a long-time friend of mine was exhausted from 40 years in a demanding profession and was thrilled when he was able to retire. He loved having more time to travel and to relax. But, at first, he admitted that during quiet times at home, he didn't know quite what to do with himself. He re-focused his life on making new plans and dreams: starting a part-time business, volunteering for an animal rescue organization and strengthening ties with lifelong friends.

Aim for enhancement, not deterioration. Life is not over. It's just different.  For some people, especially those for whom retirement was not entirely voluntary, stepping away from work that has filled their adult years may feel like an ending and the start of a steep downward slope toward deterioration, disability and death. Instead of sitting passively in front of the television set, decide what you want to learn and how you want to grow.

Our friend Theo is a man of many accomplishments. A retired social worker, he is both intellectually and emotionally intelligent. He is one of the most physically fit people in our community with an awesome daily exercise schedule. Watching him dance -- he's an expert at jazz tap -- is a wonder. But he confessed one day that he had always had a dream to learn to play an instrument and, for the past five years, Bob has been giving him informal guitar lessons. Now they have weekly jam sessions, both loving the process of making music and sharing this special interest with each other.

Bob has an insatiable desire to learn. He has not only taken a long list of classes at our Arizona State University extension here in the community, but he has also immersed himself in online classes in everything from physics to the classics. He has read every play Shakespeare wrote, tackled Ulysses, and is currently reading a college text on physical geography, learning everything he can about weather. He eagerly works on a daily crossword puzzle and has newly discovered the joy of jigsaw puzzles. His days are filled -- from dawn to the wee hours -- with learning, exploring and enjoying new subjects and pursuits.

Know that there are phases of retirement.  This is important to keep in mind during emotional retirement planning.  When one retires, there is a honeymoon phase, a settling in phase, and a facing limitations phase. For some, this can be telescoped into a few years. For others, the active, settled phase goes on for years.

During the honeymoon phase of retirement, the sheer joy of not having to live a life dominated by clocks -- alarm clocks, time clocks -- sets the tone. You thrill in the luxury of not having to get up pre-dawn, of being able to dress casually every day of the week, of going to movies in the middle of the day any day of the week, of having more time to spend with grandchildren, friends or beloved pets. Seemingly endless possibilities for travel, adventure, learning and leisure are a constant delight.

Then there is the settling in phase. You may still be delighted and grateful to have reached this time in your life, but life resumes some semblance of normal. There are bills to pay and actual life in retirement is more expensive than you imagined, even in your careful planning. Root canals, car transmission repairs or home appliance failures seem to happen in expensive clusters. You may find you like travel, but don't choose to travel as much as you had planned, perhaps for health reasons, perhaps for financial reasons or perhaps because you find your interests changing as life goes on. As you settle in to your new life, you find a mix of what pleases you, what you have to do, and dreams for the future.

Then comes the phase where you face limitations and make a whole new set of adjustments. Maybe illness or disability has caused your focus to narrow, your world to become smaller, by necessity. We've seen this start to happen with a number of our neighbors. Doctors' appointments began to crowd out lunch dates and travel plans. The golf clubs gather dust in the garage. And there are hard questions: how long will I be able to live unassisted? Does this home and this environment make sense for me anymore? You may find that, as your health changes, your priorities, plans and dreams may change, too. It isn't all depressing and all downhill. It just is. One can learn to live fully, open to new people and new experiences, in this phase of retirement as well.

As with the earlier phases of retirement,  life can be both sweet and challenging as feelings of loss and time limits co-exist with feelings of joy and new discovery.


  1. Excellent article. Much to consider as we age, but in spite of our choices always remember that friends in old age can bond even closer and be there when times get rough. Since women tend to be the survivors, it's important to stick together or maybe even live together. Consider the possibilities of having a community of life long friends wherever they may be.

  2. I always said that I would never live in a retirement community, but here I am, at least part time. I have found ways to make it work and I stay off the mean girl radar. All those years in middle school taught me something!

    I am finding retirement a very spiritual, soul-expanding time of life.

  3. All important questions. I've answered for myself two or three, but still have a few more to go.

  4. You reading my mind, Ms. Kathy? I've been working on a post in draft on this -- started when I met some of my former colleagues for dinner and much of our discussion was on our retiring lives. It'll probably take a bit to get it up with schedule and all (and some upcoming travel!) but when I do I'm going to be sure to link back to yours for the real nitty gritty! Excellent points, each and every one of them, and beautifully written. I will pass this one to many a folk. Beginning today when I share on FB!

  5. Great article to read, especially since we are also considering relocating to another state (out of CA) for retirement due to cost of living. Your honest appraisal definitely gives us some things to think about. Thank you.

  6. Thank you sooo much for this piece. I am currently taking an online course in successful aging and the topic this week is retirement. It did not cover the considerations you have given here unfortunately. I have included the link to this article within the student comments. I know it will be very helpful to the participants to think on these things.

  7. I have just entered the limitations phase and thanks to your article, I think I will climb out of it. I think sometimes we let ourselves wallow in what life deals us instead of fighting back. I really feel this last phase can be reversed somewhat. I'll let you know if I succeed.

  8. Wow! Wish I knew all of this before I retired.

  9. I think reading this would have been so helpful when first retired. Retirement means different things to people. I find that I had a much more well defined vision of what retirement would look like for me before I retired than my husband did. I am mostly happy with the reality of my life in retirement, but I have come to realize, as you so well pointed out, that retirement has different stages. Moves at this stage of the game have good and bad aspects to them. You have so well informed us about the good and the bad of retirement communities. I had to laugh at the mean girl comment. While we don't live in a retirement community, we do live in a "village" made up of mostly retired folks. I learned early on that this small group of people would never really work out well for me when it came to forming close friendships. I tend to think of them as I would about folks I worked with: be friendly and sociable, but make your close relationships elsewhere. Thankfully, I have a full social life outside of the smaller community. Great post! Thanks!

  10. I am in "peri menopause retirement" stage. I've lessened my clients by 30%, which means a gradual adjustment of financial aspects. Downsizing our home and preparing for a move perhaps in another state, albeit, I really don't want to leave my home state of California. But, I am pretty mutable. Ah! The perils of too much engagement or enmeshment with neighbors, I will curve, as I've been exposed to these situations and sometimes they can be disconcerting. What I fear is the not knowing what is before my husband and my health. We are good today, but life can change in an instant! This was a wonderfully written blog and I thank you dear friend from the bottom of my heart and the corner of Wilshire and Glendon for your evermore wisdom! Big hugs! Irene

  11. We also made those choices and sold our long time home and moved to AZ - but then after five years - we sold that home and moved back to our long time area and moved back and bought within one mile of our old neighborhood.
    Best move we ever made. Sometimes mistakes can be a "do over" and you can be happier for it.
    We are now near family, near medical facilities, and happier for the familiar surroundings.
    Just a thought.

  12. This is extremely interesting to me as we are just now starting to plan retirement. The part about moving away is especially on my mind as I have always thought that we would move to somewhere fabulous, like the mountains...but after my husband's heart surgery, I have found that we need our kids more than I ever dreamed we would. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on it.

  13. Great post! Eight years into retirement I think I'm finally comfortable being retired. I work a little writing grants for our education service district, but it doesn't get in the way of travel and fun. I feel blessed to have options. The emotional journey to this place of contentment was a rollercoaster. I'd just gotten settled into my retirement routine when the spouse retired and changed the game. I hope we can hold off on having to face limitations for awhile.

  14. I agree with the others - this is very good. What I get out of it, is to plan and prepare, but not to have specific expectations.

    I was telling my husband that I might want a smaller car in the near future. It probably confused him because four years ago, I happily purchased a new van, comfortable and practical for our family of 5. Both of us thought I'd drive it a long time, but already I'm beginning to feel bored with it, feeling like it is a family car instead of "my car." You're right... things change; things that we don't necessarily anticipate.

  15. Hey your views are awesome. Thanks for sharing the information which I believe never heard before and will sure help me to explore some awesome new things for me.

  16. Very useful post. I did a lot of research on retirement planning, financial and emotional. I have had a few surprises. First, arthritis limits travel. I'm glad I did it when I could, so remember to seize the day! Next, the hardest adjustment was balancing being too active vs bored. After 9 years, I've found my sealegs. It's also hard to transition to no paycheck and spending your savings. The checkbook says you're fine, but the brain likes fretting. You learn to live with it. Lastly, I moved. If you want to move, do it sooner rather than later. It's overwhelming!

  17. Hi Kathy, I witnessed this first hand when my sweet daddy (who had worked in the same job his entire life) was made to retire at age 75... He had no hobbies or other interests at all. My family tried to get him interested in other things --such as growing roses--but he just wasn't interested... He mostly sat and watched TV some... That sweet man was dead when he was almost 80... It was hard for him.

    George and I were both TOTALLY ready for retirement since we both had so many other interests... Life is NEVER boring for either of us.. Like many people, who have had to work in careers for many years, both hubby and I were looking forward to doing things we couldn't do when younger and when working fulltime...

    SO--for us, retirement is the BEST.