Retirement: Is It a Smooth Ride? by Bob Lowry
Retirement is about movement. Movement from employed to unemployed. Movement from restrictions imposed by others to restrictions imposed by you. Retirement is about change. Change in how your day is structured. Change in your relationships. Freedom.
If you are getting close to retirement, or have recently taken the big step, it is natural to wonder “What have I gotten myself into? What happens now?” Some of my earliest posts on Satisfying Retirement dealt with the Three Phases of retirement and some answers to those questions. I have reworked the original material a bit and present again for your review.
When I stopped working in June 2001 little did I know that just a few months later the events of September 11 would make what I had done for a living very difficult. While air travel had become increasingly unpleasant over the previous decade, 9/11 would make that unpleasantness close to unbearable. Those of us who flew for a living were suddenly faced with tremendous time and logistics hurdles that made conducting business a major hassle. So, when I decided to stop propping up a failing business the additional burdens created after the terrorist attacks had yet to happen. It is quite possible that the first stage of my retirement life might have been quite different if my stop date had been later.
What Happened First?
My First Stage of retirement began with an incredible sense of freedom. The fear of making a wrong choice, or wondering how I would fill my days lay in the future. Waking up knowing I didn’t have to pack a bag and go to the airport was exhilarating. Waking up knowing I didn’t have to leave my family for several days or a week at a time was a blessing. All I perceived was endless enjoyment stretching out as far as I could see.
Coffee on the back patio with the morning paper, tending my garden, going to a movie in the middle of the day, spending more time reading and listening to music…I had the world on a string. My lifestyle had altered for the better, immediately.
Did I miss the contact with clients or others I worked with? Not really. My client roster had been diminishing for the previous 4-5 years at a rather steady clip. And, as anyone who is in contact with customers knows, a few of my clients were not my favorite people. I dealt with them because they supported my family and me. But, not having to deal with those abrasive or arrogant personalities was like a breath of fresh air.
One thing my first stage of retirement didn’t experience was the loss of office interaction. For most of my consulting career I worked alone. There were a few clients and industry friends who I talked with several times a week. And, I will admit that not having the phone ring or the e-mail inbox full everyday did bother me a bit at first. But, the “water cooler” type of relationship was one I didn’t miss because it wasn’t part of my experience.
It is very possible that your experience in this regard was very different. If you had a work environment that included co-workers you enjoyed, clients or customers who were a pleasure to deal with, even a boss who treated you well and rewarded you fairly, missing that human interaction might be a large part of your first phase of a satisfying retirement.
First Stage Discoveries
During these first steps of developing a new satisfying retirement lifestyle I did quickly discover a few things that became important:
· Time becomes a friend. Initially time is seen as a tremendous ally. Suddenly you have control of the clock. You determine how your day is to be structured. Of course, commitments to a spouse or other relationships don’t stop. But, the blessings of a day and evening that lack the rigidity of your former workday fills you with a real sense of freedom.
· Self discovery is a journey that begins anew. You learn things about yourself and spouse that you never knew while working 8 or more hours a day. We’ve all read about the adjustments that a spouse has to make when the husband or wife is suddenly “underfoot” 24/7. It is true, even if you worked from home for all or part of your career. Unless you are single, that other human being is not used to your charming presence all the time. If you approach the process as a positive, the personality traits, thoughts, and interests of the other person gives you a chance to expand and grow yourself.
· Your “possibles” list has fewer restraints. Books you want to read, trips you want to take, projects around the house, changing a spare bedroom into den space, taking on a new hobby that has always intrigued you, involvement in volunteer work, the chance to more fully develop your spiritual side if that is your thing…the list of “possibles” can be endless. Of course, financial, family, and health care issues impose certain limits. But, those boundaries are quite a bit farther apart when you are enjoying a satisfying retirement lifestyle.
Second Stage: Reality Raises Its Head
The first “honeymoon” phase is when time stretches forever toward the horizon. You see all the possibilities of an active, productive, exciting decades-long part of your life. That euphoria can last a few weeks, a few months, even a year or more. But, at some point, virtually everyone leaves the first stage of retirement and gets a slap in the face: this is the Second Stage.
I am not a mental health professional so I can’t tell you why this happens. Nor, would I even pretend to tell you how to “fix” a severe problem. Hopefully, knowing that you are not alone and that these feelings come to most everyone might make the process easier to bear.
·As you make the transition into this new phase of retirement, there is a growing sense of unease, even panic. “What did I do? Am I crazy? I’ll be broke in a year! What if I get really sick?” The reality of being without the safety net that a job provided suddenly strikes you. You are the Master and Commander of your fate and that is scary. What looked so good a few months ago now looks like a shipwreck about to happen.
·Loneliness often rises to the forefront. Even if you are married and your non-working spouse is home most of the time with you, feelings of isolation from what is going on out in the world will build. You have no idea how you are going to fill all the time each day. If you are single, widowed, or your spouse continues to work that void can be even stronger.
·The benefits you took for granted while working are either gone, or curtailed. Medical coverage usually suffers. Paid vacations? No more. Pension contributions? No way. Gaining weight and losing physical and mental sharpness? Yes.
What you must keep in mind is that, this too shall pass. If you suffer a bout of moderate to severe depression that lasts for more than a month, I urge you to seek professional help. Doctors can help you get control of these serious side effects of not working. But, if you have thoughts about any of the question above and are not clinically depressed, breathe easier. The next stage will definitely follow.
Third Stage: Stability Returns and Real Growth Begins
Luckily for most retirees, Phase Three of your retirement arrives and can become the most satisfying. This is when you achieve a healthy balance between euphoria, panic, and reality. It is when you realize that you have the ability to make it all work for you. A happy, satisfying lifestyle is very possible.
This isn’t a period of Pollyanna-like thinking. It is a time when you can more calmly look at your current position, your options, and your dreamed-about future and decide what you can accomplish. It is a time of possible personal growth and development like you haven’t experienced since you were in your 20’s. Emotional and intellectual growth opportunities abound. Time really is your ally.
Personally, I originally thought my wife and I would take a long cruise at least once a year, spend the hot Arizona summers someplace else, and maybe buy an RV and explore the country. Almost 16 years later a fair amount of that has happened. We did retire before our financial resources were sufficient to turn all of our dreams into fact. But, that was a deliberate choice on our part. To continue working would not be worth the cost to our relationship or our health just so we could make all those “dreams” happen.
Also, we discovered that plans are meant to be adjusted, or abandoned. What makes us happy today is quite different from what it was all those years ago. The joy of spending much more time with family and friends and deepening our spiritual life has grown in importance. We have always built our married life on experiences over things and that wasn’t about to change. So, some of the grandiose thoughts of retirement lifestyle have been modified. Did we get the RV, occasionally take a cruise and travel to Europe a few times? Yes, Yes, and Yes. Are we perfectly content to spend several months at home? Absolutely, yes.
Did I go through the anguish of Stage Two? Certainly, and I still do every once in awhile. But, I have developed the insight of what was really important to me so I can weather the storm, and so can you.
Questions for you: what phase are you in? How has your experience differed or matched mine? What advice can you share?
By Bob Lowry