How to Make Retirement Your Golden Years

Bill was looking forward to retirement. After 25 years of hard work and dedication, the idea of being on his own time, having time for gardening and golf, was what he fantasized about for years.

And then it happened: the big retirement party, the gardening and golf, and the longstanding to-do list of chores around the house.

But six months in, he’s starting to crash: The to-do list has run down; the gardening and golf are getting old. He’s getting depressed, spending a lot of time in front of the tv or the internet; his partner is worried. Bill’s in trouble.

Bill’s not usual. For all the media-induced visions and family folktales of the golden years that we supposedly strive for, it can often turn out to be a bit of shock and disappointment.

In my experience, this is particularly true for men. Why? Because women do a good job of building a career but also a range of relationships–siblings and grandkids, friends, and church acquaintances that keep them going even when their work lives are over; men, not so much.

Many of their relationships are built around work, and even more, so are their identities, who they are–the carpenter, the lawyer, the teacher–and with it comes, and came, a sense of purpose.

Once it’s over, their identity and purpose go with it. And adding fuel to the fire, they often feel displaced–their workplace home is gone, and now they’re sharing it with their partners, who are likely feeling invaded and can fall into criticism and micromanaging for a lot of good reasons.

No wonder this new chapter, the next 20 golden years, can look like a dry flat landscape with not much to look forward to.

How to move through this transition? Here are some tips:

Step down gradually if possible.

Here you pull back from full-time work gradually. Cut back on the number of clients, work part-time, and substitute teach a few days a week rather than being a full-time teacher.

This allows you to ease into a slower, more diversified pace of life. Going 60 to zero is hard to absorb for anyone.

Plan ahead; diversify.

It’s easy to think about what you’re giving up or getting away from–the job that you long ago outgrew, but it’s also important to take time to plot out what you’re moving towards.

Yes, you had visions of helping grandkids or spending time playing golf, but you need contingencies you can control. The grandkids may move away; you may injure your shoulder and not be able to play golf as much as you thought.

Work out a range of scenarios. Have multiple baskets of activities and interests in place so if one gets tipped over, you have others to turn to.

Carry forward what your work most provided.

When you look back, what is it that your work most gave you? Even if the work itself was a grind, there was probably something that you did value–the socialization and the people you worked with, that you felt, even in a small way, that you made a difference, that you had opportunities to be creative, that you had a sense of power by being a manager or felt appreciated.

Whatever that one thing was, your challenge is to transform those elements and find a way to bring them into this new chapter of your life–ways to be creative, feel powerful, make a difference, and be around people that you like or can help you be part of a team. You may start from scratch, and it will take time to find a new substitute, but it can be done.

Expect a mood change.

After the honeymoon stage wears off, you may get depressed, but you’re also dealing with grief, a loss–of relationships or identity, or purpose.

This is about giving yourself time to acknowledge that this chapter is over and that sadness and grief are part of the process. Be patient, and keep moving; it will get better over time.

Explore, be curious, and follow the spark.

You can’t figure out this new chapter by sitting on a couch and thinking about it. You need to experiment, do stuff, and have boots-on-the-ground experiences to figure out what works and doesn’t.

Any wisp of an idea that energizes you and makes you curious, run with it–doing a triathlon, studying quantum physics, playing the bassoon, redecorating your house, solving world hunger, whatever–do something with it.

Your rational brain will say this is stupid or impractical, but some part of you is telling you what you need. Check it out, and see what about your fantasy is important that you can cling to—being more physical, creative, and challenged; keep expectations low.

You’re at an exploratory stage, gathering information about what you like and don’t like now. Don’t get bogged down with a lot of shoulds and unrealistic expectations.

Be patient.

Transitions are often a several-year experience. It takes, for example, a few years to move through a divorce and feel like you have finally turned the page, and retirement is no different.

Get support, provide support.

If you’re going through these challenges, get some help—get advice from retired friends. If depression seems to be taking over, consider medication or therapy. And if you’re a family member watching this unfold with your partner or parent, step up: check-in, ask how you can help, encourage, not criticize, moving forward.

Retirement is one of life’s major developmental changes. The keys are planning, curiosity, patience, and finding ways to incorporate your old life into your new.

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