My grandfather Henry Alt, or Grandpa as we called him, retired in 1977 when he turned 67. He died of a heart attack two years later while playing catch with his black lab in his back yard. A Russian immigrant, he sailed here with his family in 1912 when he was just two years old. Grandpa went to work every day until he was eligible to collect Social Security. He didn’t have a pension. After he retired he fished regularly but he mostly just stayed around the house, which probably contributed to his brief retirement.
The transition from working to retirement can be more difficult than it would appear at first glance. The newfound freedom is enticing, but the loss of contact with colleagues, a missing sense of purpose, the change in routines and the lack of structure can leave some feeling a bit lost, and can lead to clinical depression for some.
Since the time my Grandpa died our culture’s learned a lot about emotional and physical health in retirement. One of the leading experts on the topic of healthy retirement lifestyles is Dr. Nancy Schlossberg, author of Revitalizing Retirement. Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships and Purpose. The book is well worth reading, but I’ll summarize a few points that she makes in the book.
She first discusses the importance of mattering – the need to feel noticed, appreciated, and depended on. This concept was coined by sociologist Morris Rosenberg. When we feel like we matter to others, it influences our thinking and behavior. As Schlossberg says, “it is important for people to believe that they count in others’ lives and that they make a difference to them.”
The five dimensions of mattering according to Rosenberg are:
- Attention – The feeling that one commands the interest or notice of another person.
- Importance – Being the object of another person’s concern and the belief that he or she cares about what we want, think and do.
- Appreciation – When we feel appreciated, we feel that others are thankful for who we are and what we do.
- Dependence – The need for others to depend on us.
- Pride – When we feel that others will be happy for our accomplishments and will be disappointed when we fail.
Retirees will find greater happiness when they can find new ways to matter to others – in a new job, to their community, to family and friends, and especially to themselves.
Schlossberg then identifies five different paths in a healthy and happy retirement, as follows:
Continuers identify so strongly with their pre-retirement focus that they want to continue what they were doing. One of my clients in his late 80’s still goes to his office because it’s what he loves to do, but he cut back on his hours and responsibilities to fit a 3-day work week.
2) Easy Gliders
Easy Gliders easily leave their pre-retirement past behind, and just go with the flow. They may want to give up their structured professional life and enjoy a flexible schedule. Fishing one day, visiting family the next day, working on projects the rest of the week – Easy Gliders are flexible.
Those who want to learn a new skill, chase after their passions and dreams, or pursue a new career are the Adventurers. Ever want to join the circus? If you’re an Adventurer, retirement is the perfect time!
Searchers haven’t yet determined what their new focus will be, so they may engage in many different activities in their search for a meaningful lifestyle. They know they want to be actively involved in something, but they’re not sure exactly what that is yet.
5) Involved Spectators
Perhaps you enjoy your field of work or your industry, but you want to experience it in a new way. Involved Spectators might retire from the business, but still be involved in industry meetings, leveraging their valuable network.
Those who don’t choose one of the five paths can become retreaters, those for whom anything much beyond the essential tasks of daily living take too much energy. It’s easy to understand that Retreaters can easily slip into depression if they let themselves stay in this mode for too long.
Schlossberg’s book is an excellent primer for preparing for retirement. Since preparation and transition to retirement can take a few years, you’ll want to start reading this book well ahead of your actual retirement. Proper planning can make all the difference in your happiness when that big day arrives. I wonder how my Grandpa might have lived differently if he had been coached to choose a different path than the default one of his generation.