How do you help someone who’s struggling with the prospect of a happy retirement? This can be one of the most stressful transitions in life, and often it is family and friends who have to pick up the pieces.
Michael had a dream for his retirement; more time with the family, longer holidays in far-flung places, no stress, no pressure, no demanding job, and more time on the golf course. This is perhaps a dream that many people can identify with. However, Sarah was secretly concerned about her husband’s retirement, and in many ways had a more accurate perception of how things may affect him (and consequently her) when the day finally arrived.
Eighteen months post-retirement, Michael’s dream had unfortunately worn thin and the reality was a lot less fulfilling than he’d anticipated. Sarah became more concerned about his lack of interest in life as he spent increasing amounts of time at home, struggling to get up in the morning, not appearing to be getting much of out life and having marked swings in his mood.
He had tried various activities and a few short-lived new hobbies, but nothing had really prepared him for the transition from a work environment. Neither Michael or Sarah addressed it directly and both were hoping that the problem would go away.
As time passed, Sarah became at her wits end and was increasingly frustrated and angry with the man she’d spent her life with. This was not the energetic and resourceful person she’d known - the dynamics of their relationship had shifted and Sarah was left feeling isolated, lost and worried about what their future may bring. Her role had changed from the wife of a successful and driven individual, whom she loved and admired, to one of a carer, but to someone with no discernible illness and in many ways with everything to live for.
Ironically, it was her anxieties that finally accessed the help that Michael needed through the family GP suggesting couples counselling, which addressed the issues his retirement had raised and helped them plan for the future.
What does a happy retirement look like?
Retirement, in aspirational terms, can be the dream of spending more time with family, relaxing, taking up a new hobby or travelling the world. However, this panacea is not achieved by everyone. The reality is 20% of us struggle with adjusting to retirement and 56% don’t do anything to prepare for it.
“The thought of retirement terrified me. I’ve given so much to my work, its been such a big part of my life and such a big part of who I am, my worth and my friends.”
This is not an untypical perception.
Our internal perceptions of retirement can involve their own set of negative connotations at both a conscious and unconscious level. Perceptions around being useful, productive, income generating, visible or important, that have developed at a societal level can be internalised and play a part in our feelings about retiring. Without some form of structure and satisfaction, any sense of loss can be reinforced by these perceptions as retirement becomes a day-to-day reality.
Replacing work in some form places greater responsibility on the retiree, and to an extent other loved ones who can help with the transition process. There is an increased importance in ensuring a proactive approach to maintaining and developing social relationships, as the workplace often provides many of those relationships, on top of daily structure, interaction and support.
For many people a period of real reflection, either alone or with others, helps refine thinking about future plans and what fulfilment they will offer, and which elements are the most important to them.
For most of us, the structure that work provides includes; typically a five day week, a number of weeks holiday, pressure, social connection, purpose, reward, satisfaction and sometimes frustration. It is part and parcel of the life that work provides without us having to construct it. Without needing to replicate everything that employment offers, a happy retirement needs to have some form of individual structure for each of us, to retain a sense of purpose and direction, without which the future could seem bleak and aimless.
Addressing the issue
What could have helped Sarah and her husband be better prepared? There is some literature that tackles this and there are a number of courses, some provided by employers. It is still a developing area of expertise but much of it is aimed at the pre-retirement audience.
If people find themselves in a position similar to Michael and Sarah’s, there are a number of options that could help guide people towards a successful and happy retirement.
Vital in addressing this is the person accepting that change is needed and it is their responsibility in helping this process. They may well have experienced a loss of self-worth and feel de-skilled once they're out of the work context. Key to changing this is agreeing a plan to provide focus, increase confidence and move towards a more positive life. This is easy to say and not always so easy to achieve, and will involve some trial and error.
Broaching this with a husband or wife may not always be welcomed or be seen as positive if they’re struggling, and it could be perceived as a criticism. In Sarah’s instance, it may have been that a close friend or other relative would have been in a better position to hold that discussion, or even to find professional support from a coach.
Identifying individual drivers
Having an honest and accurate appraisal of an individual’s ‘drivers’ or motivators is really important to understand what will help them satisfy that sense of worth. These drivers fall into eight fundamental categories and develop through factors such as family, culture and stage of life. We each have different orders of importance and are constantly trying to fulfil them.
These can be broadly defined as :
- seeking a connection with others or ourselves
- maintaining security in our lives
- having variety/excitement
- being noticed for our virtues and achievements
- achieving our plans and finishing things
- learning and growing
- self satisfaction, having pride in the things we do
- responsibility and contribution
By understanding an individual’s drivers, we can understand the origins of their ultimate motivations. If you ask someone if they want more money, while they may say ‘yes’, it is not usually the money they want but what they believe money can buy, whether it be security, significance, or achievement. Revealing the primary drivers can help to identify how to truly motivate people, and plan for a happy retirement which is both satisfying and engaging.
Often using “why” questions can help reveal the real reasons behind the satisfaction derived from certain activities. There are questions you can ask to determine a person's primary emotional gratifications such as,
‘If you could go anywhere on a trip where would you go? What kind of place you stay at, who would you go with (if anyone), what kind of things would you do?’
‘What would be your ideal project to work on? And why? What has to happen for it to stay ideal?’
Following up the response with further “why” questions often provides greater clarity.
Finding new direction
Tapping into those drivers will help understand what someone may find fulfilling outside their traditional work environment, and make developing a plan more likely to succeed. The order of importance of each of these drivers can change over time, based on our environment, experiences, and especially traumas or relationships. The drivers can be cultivated either positively or negatively by our environment, culture, family and our peers.
Once identified, these primary drivers can be fulfilled in many different ways and different combinations e.g. a second career in a completely different field, a period of study, volunteer work, joining an activity group or sport, looking after grandchildren, ensuring the maintenance of friendships or family contacts, campaigning, teaching others, using skills and knowledge, physical activity.
Connecting the drivers to options and then constructing a series of goals to develop a plan might sound a little mechanistic, but without the structure of a work environment some form of replacement is very helpful. Having a real understanding of the motivators enables us to make a realistic and satisfying plan. The process of setting goals, not only provides a sense of achievement and self worth, but an added sense of purpose and direction.