Thursday, June 21, 2018

Stages of Retirement

Stages of Retirement

Recently, I sat in an office filling out paperwork for my appointment. When I reached the bottom of the form, which required a date, I realized even though I had an appointment, I didn’t know the date. Too lazy to dig into my purse for my cell phone, I asked the guy next to me, who was also filling out the same form, if he knew the date.

“The third”, came the reply.

“Thanks. Retired,” said I by way of explanation for my lack of date information.

“Me, too,” he sighed.

I couldn’t help myself. I had to know what was behind the sigh. He seemed a little depressed, heavy. So, I queried, “Not having a good time in retirement?”

He hunched forwarded a bit in his seat and looked at the floor. “I get up every morning wondering what I’m going to do today. I’m thinking of getting a part-time job.”

“Maybe you could volunteer for an organization,” I offered.

“Yeah, I already do that but this isn’t what I thought it would be.”

With that, my name was called and I got up to leave. Before I made my exit, I turned to him and said, “What you’re experiencing is normal. You’re not alone.” He nodded his head but kept looking at the floor.

In 1975 a professor of gerontology named Robert Atchley identified seven stages of retirement. Since then, they’ve been pared down to six but the bottom line is retirement is such a major life transition requiring a redefining of our very role in life that no matter how much we plan, we’re bound to experience at least some of the stages. The guy in the waiting room was in the stage of disillusionment possibly missing the structure and productivity of work, which had given his life purpose. While not everyone goes through this stage, most of us do. It’s similar to the realization, somewhere around age 40, when we say to ourselves, “Is this all there is to life?” You know that moment I’m talking about. The one where you realized you didn’t become brilliant, rich, famous, have the exciting career you dreamed about or whatever you thought would happen to your life. Well, that realization shows up in retirement, too. After the “honeymoon” of relaxation, the feeling like you’re on vacation, the relief of leaving the rat race behind, boredom sets in and you find yourself saying, “Is this all there is to retirement?”

Even Colin Powell talked about it on the speakers circuit a few years ago. After leaving his post as Secretary of State where he was constantly whisked here and there in limousines and government jets with an entourage of assistants, secret service agents and press corps, he found himself walking down Fifth Avenue in New York all by his lonesome to fetch a hotdog from the street vendor. He went on to recount how he ended up on the speakers circuit because his wife of 56 years told him unless he found something to do with his life, they wouldn’t make it to year 57. While his wife’s ultimatum may be slightly comical, she was wise enough to realize he needed to do something to recreate his purpose in life. For both their sakes, she wasn’t going to tolerate his moping. The lesson in Powell’s story is how he reoriented himself by joining the speakers circuit thus creating a new routine for himself. And…securing his marriage for at least another year.

Unfortunately, for many of us disillusionment with retirement and therefore, life, can last years before we decide to take inventory of our situation and decide what we’re going to do when we grow up. For a sad few, the disillusionment stage can last the rest of our lives. That’s a real downer, folks. People who think their “golden years” aren’t golden have no one but themselves to blame. So, take stock! The willingness to take stock of our situation, options, wants and needs is the first step to recovering our retirement dream. Like the guy in the waiting room who was thinking of getting a part-time job, acknowledging that something’s gotta give moves you toward action. Back in 1935 when the retirement age was set by the government at age 65, it was a rarity indeed, for most people to even live to that age. With longevity comes opportunity. Today, with more and more people living to be 100, the idea of sitting out 30 years of retirement in a rocker on the front porch should be enough to get you motivated to find a new hobby, career, volunteer activity or whatever floats your boat.

So, whether you’re already retired and wondering where your retirement dream went or you’re looking at retiring someday in the future, keep the disillusionment stage in mind. It may only last a day or two or it could be years. That’s up to you. Know that for most of us, it probably will come. But, also know, it is an opportunity to take stock, to reinvent yourself, to learn, to be, to give, to reach your potential in areas you may not have ever envisioned for yourself. And, remember, what you’re experiencing is normal and you’re not alone.


Last Sunday, as Martin and I sat in the kitchen waiting for dinner to finish baking in the oven, we sipped a glass of wine and talked about our latest projects. Suddenly, I realized the day before was our one year retirement anniversary. A year!?! Gone already! And, we didn’t even celebrate having made it a full year. A year of ups and downs as we adjusted our way to a fulfilling retirement routine. Mind you, we’re not there yet. But, we managed to make it into Stage 4, the Reorientation Stage. With six retirement stages, we’re more than halfway there. Yipeeee!

Last week I wrote about Disillusionment, Stage 3. After meeting someone who was obviously disillusioned with retirement and having been there myself, I felt the need to forewarn as many people as were willing to read my post. But what happens before and after disillusionment? Well, in the past year we’ve experienced all the before.

Pre-retirement, Stage 1, was filled with euphoria. We planned what we would do in retirement. Martin gave his notice at work. His employer threw a catered retirement bash. Bucket lists were made. Lists included all kinds of things we always wanted to do but never seemed to have the time for. Travel made it onto the list, an activity we never liked much before, so whatever made us think we’d like it in retirement, is anybody’s guess. After a work life of travel, travel, travel for both of us, we decided travel was, in reality, one of the last things we wanted to do. Little did we know, this was just the beginning of adjusting our retirement goals and outlook.

Initially, Stage 2, Retirement, aka the “honeymoon” took on a feeling of perpetual vacation as we motorcycled, hiked, gardened, bicycled, engaged in some artwork, sat on the screened porch reading in the warmth of sunny fall days. Winter arrived to a long trip to visit family for Christmas, a luxury we never enjoyed while we worked. That was followed by lazy mornings sipping lattes by the fire and staying in my jammies ’til noon as I took on the new hobby of knitting.

But disillusionment was seeping in. Spring arrived to six months of perpetual vacation giving way to a feeling of restlessness. A feeling of missing the challenge, the mind stimulation, the purpose afforded by the everyday grind of work. What!?! Miss the rat race? No. Not possible. And worse of all, we were getting on each others very last nerve. Our marriage, made in heaven, was being tested at every turn or so it seemed. We arrived at Stage 3, Disillusionment, not even realizing what it was or that it happened to most retirees. But, we did know, something had to give. So, once again, I trawled the web for answers. I’m here to tell you, there’s not a lot out there, not even on the so-called “senior” (I hate that word but that’s what we have) websites. However, in one Google search, I stumbled across Robert Atchley’s research into the stages or phases of retirement and voila!, a lot of things fell into place. For starters, we made a conscious decision to aim for Stage 4, Reorientation.
To me, Reorientation, is a couple of things. First of all, you put on your designer cap and pull up all the creative muscle you can find on the right side of your brain and start designing a retirement lifestyle to put you smack in the middle of your happy place. Secondly, kiss the rat race goodbye. Let it go. Sever old ties, if necessary. You still need people in retirement. You still need human connection. You still need to network. But, staying in touch with the old gang still tethered to the work place can keep you tethered there as well. Keep the real friends. Let the rest go. And, give them permission to let you go.

Retirement is a reinvention of who you are. For us, we are right brain people who lived our work lives in a left brain world. We wanted to explore different art mediums in retirement but held ourselves back. You know, the old fear of failure specter. What if I can’t draw? Can’t paint? Can’t carve? What if I produce ugly stuff nobody likes? Scary as the thought was, when we decided to seriously enter the world of artists, that is the precise moment we started our reorientation. After several enjoyable weeks of watercolor class, mainly because of the social interaction, not the painting, yesterday I took my first drawing class. Don’t even think it…I already know I put the cart before the horse. Anyway, my drawing instructor told our class, “After today’s class, if anyone asks you what you do, you tell them, you’re an artist”. He went on to tell us how he wanted us to start thinking of ourselves as artists. Think it, feel it, be it. (I really like this guy.) Besides classes, we’ve become involved in a couple of artists’ guilds, Martin helping out with the fall arts festival, both of us attending openings (wine, cheese and art…doesn’t get any better than that) and me enjoying more social interaction in my drawing class. We’ve made new friends. Artist friends who encourage and support. I’ve made the discovery I can actually draw. Let’s call it the discovery of a lifetime and I am pumped! We feel like we’re well on our way to creating a rewarding Retirement Routine, Stage 5.

Once we are settled into our new retirement lifestyle, we intend for it to last a long, long time but we also intend to keep looking for more discoveries of a lifetime. More risk, more exploration, more change. What about Stage 6? you ask. Stage 6 is the Termination of Retirement. That’s when you’re so old and frail, you can’t do any of this fun stuff anymore. You’re focused on meeting your maker. As I said, that’s a long way off. Until then, I’m an artist.

The Transition

We were ready for retirement! We had three financial planners (yes, three…hedging our bets you see) tell us we had plenty of money. We had lots of things to do. Me, gardening, gourd art, growing food, painting, reading, writing and 6 grandkids. Martin, bicycling, motorcycling, gourd art, photography, helping me with the six acres and ditto on the 6 grandkids. We were both accomplished cooks who like trying new dishes. We were set!

Then the announcement was made by Martin to his company. I left work two years earlier. I had adjusted and was happily sailing along in a nice routine. I was looking forward to Martin joining me so it was a surprise to both of us when we were overcome by emotion and stress. I trawled the web looking for information about what we were feeling but came up pretty much empty. Most of what’s out there is about money in retirement not how to enter retirement in bliss. So, were we an aberration and everyone else in the country entered retirement living happily ever after? 
Most of the retirees I approached with this question spoke merrily about how much they enjoyed being retired. Congratulations rolled in from family and friends, some of whom were retirees, via Facebook and email. And, of course, the oft asked question we received, “How did you do it?” There was even a tinge of envy in the faces of a few who asked. And a very honest few told us outright how envious they were. So what was wrong with us? We were supposed to be happy. Right? 
Even I felt a certain sadness at Martin leaving a company he’d worked at for almost 22 years. In some respects his retirement party was more like a wake than a celebration as I realized how many memories and good times we shared with so many at this company. I also realized it was this amazing company which was a large part of why we could retire early. It was hard to walk out the door that night knowing I would never be back. It was hard to say goodbye to co-workers we had known for over 20 years. Even I shared a lot of memories with these people. I couldn’t imagine what Martin was going through.

As Martin’s last work day approached I also began to doubt our numbers. What if the financial planners were wrong? What if we were wrong? What if we didn’t have enough activities to keep us occupied? What if we got bored doing our hobbies everyday? Was it really the wisest thing to leave a working life behind? Retirement is defined as conclusion, ending, termination. It sounded so final. Even though I was at home for two years, with Martin still in the workplace, I didn’t really feel like I was retired. Now it seemed real and scary and doubtful. Now, when people asked, “What do you do?”, the answer would be we’re retired…concluded, terminated, ended…YIKES! The stress continued to creep in. 
But, as I voiced my doubts, on occasion someone would step forward and tell me how they, too, had felt moments of uncertainty. I came across the one brave and honest soul in my circle who looked me straight in the eye and said, “Retiring is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Wow! Finally. Someone who made me feel like the sadness of leaving a working life behind was normal. Then, there was the man who told me it took his Dad 6 months to adjust to retirement and how his family worried about him the entire time. Finally, there was the couple who told me it was a transition, an adjustment and it would take time. How much depended on us. For them, it took two years. It took us about 18 months to transition. The key? Finding renewed purpose in life.

If we had a do over, knowing what we know now, we’d do some things differently. Martin has noted how he’d choose the spring to retire because the weather is more conducive to motorcycling, bicycling and hiking, especially in the Blue Ridge Mountains we love so much. Being physically active, getting out of the house more often may have made this easier. I’d want us to take advantage of his company’s Employee Assistance Program for the 6 free counseling sessions they offered. Talking with an expert about the emotional side of retiring may have allayed some of the stress. And, though we traveled extensively for work and find we’re more homebodies, I think a long vacation someplace sunny and warm may have helped us transition. Learning we needed to find a new purpose in life was critical. But, that took some time. Starting this blog put me on the road to a new purpose in life. Acknowledging the activities we were already engaged in may not be enough or the one, was also of critical importance. For those of you who are not yet retired, don’t take anything for granted – learn from my mistakes. Fortunately, we were always risk takers, willing to try new things, take a chance. We also recognize that failure is often the catalyst for success so my advice is try, try again in your search for renewed purpose.

The point in all this is retirement is a huge and I mean HUGE life changing event, not much different from getting married or divorced or having a baby or losing a loved one. It’s change. And, as with any life changing event, it means emotional ups and downs. It means being prepared to roll with some punches. It means good days and bad days until you adjust to a new reality. It means adjusting to new schedules or, with retirement, maybe no schedules. After all, every day is Saturday. So, my best advice is before you retire, regardless of your age, think about how you will make the transition as painless as possible as you reinvent who you are.

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