That’s Men: Retire right so you can live to enjoy it
It’s decades now since a man who was involved with the banks asked an organisation I worked for to put on a pre-retirement course for bank managers. It seemed an odd request. Why would men (as they all were) retiring on good pensions need a course in how to do it?
“Because their life expectancy after retirement averages two years,” he replied. I began to see how men who had been pillars of the community, who managed relatively large staffs and who had been closely involved in the commercial life of their localities, might go rapidly downhill when all that was suddenly taken away.
I don’t what what the statistics are today but in the meantime a good deal more awareness has risen about the need to plan for retirement.
A recent look at retirement by the American Psychological Association leads me to think, though, that those of us who can’t afford to retire and who don’t have to, may be better off than we think.
Retirement is a minefield if you don’t do it right and it all too often starts off with the “rush/crash” phenomenon. Retirement brings a rush of wellbeing in its immediate aftermath, according to a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. No more going into the office, do what you like, the world is your oyster and all that. Within a few years though, the rush is followed by a crash with happiness levels falling sharply.
To deal with the crash – ideally to prevent it from happening – we need to plan for our psychological health as carefully as we plan our finances, psychologists who have studied this area agree.
First, though, we need to acknowledge one real difficulty: the pressure to be seen to enjoy retirement no matter what. “The cultural norm for retirement is that you are living the good life,” Robert Delamontagne, author of The Retiring Mind, told the American Psychological Association Monitor.
“People can go through hell when they retire and they will never say a word about it, often because they are embarrassed.”
If retirement isn’t working out for you, or if you are terrified of the prospect, be aware that you are not alone.
Both working and volunteering reduce stress, depression and even the risk of dementia in people who have retired from their main career. To get the benefits, though, you really have to be involved in these activities. If you’re bored or wish you were somewhere else doing something else, you won’t get these rewards.
Post-retirement work also tends to bring better physical health compared to not working. This might be due to the exercise or other forms of activation involved in working or it may be linked to the value of social networks in maintaining our health.
And if, like me, you are going to have to continue working, the good news is that the longer you go without retiring, the lower your risk of dementia.
This is all very well if you can get work or if you have the choice to stay in work. If you can’t do either of these things then volunteering is, as I mentioned above, a healthy alternative. But remember that you have to be really into it. One study found that people who volunteer in a half-hearted way are actually worse off psychologically than those who don’t volunteer at all.
Being pressurised into spending your retirement as an unpaid babysitter is also bad for your psychological wellbeing. If you want to do it, great, but if not, you need to be prepared to say so or to have some very clear boundaries around what you will and won’t do.
The bottom line is that retirement needs to be talked about and planned. It isn’t a phase to go into with woolly assumptions and half-baked ideas.
You’ll find more on the studies mentioned here in the January edition of the APA Monitor at apa.org/monitor.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind - Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.