Counseling Today, Features

Preparing for retirement goes beyond a good 401(k)

By Laurie Meyers November 29, 2017

Thou shalt contribute to thy 401(k) — or 403(b) or individual retirement account, etc. It is the first commandment of retirement planning. Contribute early and often, perch on that nest egg and make sure that it’s big enough for you to live on after you retire.

That’s sound advice. After all, you will need lots of money to support yourself once you’re unwilling or unable to work any longer.

But then what? After your financial future is secure, are there really any questions left to answer or obstacles to overcome? Well, yes. As it turns out, there’s a lot more to sound retirement planning than saving money. Consider: What are you going to do with the rest of your life? Where will you get your social interaction now that you’re not gathered around the coffee pot with your co-workers? What will you do with your time? What happens when you and your partner are together all day, every day? Who are you without your job?

Professional counselors may not be experts in financial planning, but they can certainly help clients explore what they want their lives to look like after retirement and take steps to make that vision a reality.

Exit ahead?

As a society, our definition of retiring is changing. Largely gone are the days of people walking out the door at age 65, gold watch and pension in hand. The majority of Americans today either need or want to work beyond what once was considered “full retirement age.” Working past retirement age could mean spending a few extra years at an existing job, cutting back to part time or even trying out a new career entirely. There’s no “right” or predetermined path. Clients need to consider what would work best for them.

“Start by thinking about if you like what you’re doing. Do you want to do it until you retire?” asks Christine Moll, a past president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging (AADA), a division of the American Counseling Association.

Deciding whether to stay in a job isn’t just a matter of willingness, adds Moll, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who practices in the Buffalo, New York, area. People also need to consider whether they will be physically able to stay at their current job as they are approaching retirement age.

Wendy Killam, an ACA member and co-editor of the book Career Counseling Interventions: Practice With Diverse Clients, agrees. “Our physical decline really starts in our 40s, so it’s incumbent upon people to start thinking about what they are going to be able to handle physically,” she stresses. “Can I do this job forever, or do I need to think about doing something less strenuous?”

Killam, also a former president of AADA, adds that if clients are considering changing jobs in anticipation of retirement, the earlier they do it the better. She recommends that clients make this kind of move, if possible, in their 50s rather than in their 60s.

“As people get older, they face more ageism,” explains Killam, a professor in the Department of Human Services at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. “Someone may say, ‘Hmm, this person is 60. How long could they really be useful?’” She notes that although U.S. workers are protected against age discrimination, cases can be tough to prove.

Even entertaining the idea of changing jobs can be scary, and figuring out what that next job will be can be terrifying. That’s where career counseling comes in for people who are looking toward retirement but still need or want to work for several more years, says Killam. “Counselors can offer career guidance, testing and career exploration. They can give a wide number of [assessment and aptitude] tests that can help clients consider opportunities that they might not otherwise have thought of.”

Counselors can also help these clients research what jobs are available and in which markets. Clients may find that some positions aren’t very prevalent in their local job market. “I may decide I want to be a marine biologist, but I don’t want to move from Texas,” Killam says. In those cases, clients casting an eye toward retirement need to decide whether they are willing to relocate.

As a kind of trial run for retirement, Killam sometimes encourages her clients to take a minivacation at home for a minimum of one to two weeks. “Stay at home, stay totally disconnected, and see what that’s like,” she urges. “It gives you an idea: ‘Is this something I can really do?’”

Some clients may find that rather than abruptly retiring, they would prefer to transition to part-time employment. In fact, Killam adds, as society seemingly embraces an expectation of remaining in the workforce longer, that kind of arrangement may become more common.

Taking time to process

There is no magic age or plan for retirement, and regardless of when it happens, it marks a significant time of transition and loss, Killam emphasizes.

However, proper preparation can make going through the loss less painful, says Nancy Rhine, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in the San Francisco Bay area.

When people decide to retire, “there’s a lot of anticipatory anxiety,” she says. “We tend to focus on … the process of retirement: When do I tell my boss? Am I going to have enough money? How will I pay my bills?”

In the flurry of planning and questioning, the emotional element of retiring can get lost, says Rhine, who specializes in gerontological counseling. She advises clients to take a few months, at minimum, to go through the steps of exiting their jobs so that they have time to process all of the attendant emotions. For clients feeling anxious or uncertain, Rhine recommends that they ask about the experiences of friends or colleagues who have been through the retirement process already, talking their fears and questions over with others and keeping a journal. She finds that when clients write down their thoughts, it prevents them from “spinning their wheels” by obsessing, ruminating and overthinking.

When the final month of work arrives, the mood often becomes celebratory, Rhine says. Clients typically are looking forward to giving up the daily grind. Flash-forward to the final week, and there are often farewell lunches with co-workers and maybe even a party. And then the party is over. What then?

“Now you’re thinking, ‘I don’t have to get up early, I don’t have any set schedule.  … This is great! I’m going to call my friend and go to lunch with her, watch the news …’ That tends to last about a month,” Rhine says.

Moll agrees, explaining that although the newly retired do typically feel a sense of freedom, there is usually a point at which people sit up and ask themselves, “Is this all there is?”

“Then,” says Rhine, “you tend to start thinking, ‘A lot of my friends were at the office. That’s who I was talking to every day.’” Clients may then decide to reach out to retired friends for inspiration, only to find that some are busier than ever, serving on every committee and constantly on the move, while others are sitting on the couch, bored out of their minds. Neither option necessarily speaks to the way these newly retired clients want to live their own retirement years.

Clients frequently fall into the trap of comparing themselves with others who have retired and thinking, “I’m not doing this right. What’s wrong with me?’” Rhine says. “There’s a tendency [for clients] to want to rush through and figure out the answer really quickly. You don’t know who you are in retirement yet. Give yourself time. There is no one way to do it; no one-size-fits-all.”

Moll adds that part of the transition is letting the pendulum swing from doing nothing to beginning to find structure.

“I advise people to take their time,” Rhine says. “Don’t sign up for a lot of responsibilities, such as volunteering or joining committees, right away.” Overscheduling and trying to figure everything out all at once can lead to clients feeling overwhelmed and depressed, she says. Instead, she encourages recently retired clients to let the dust settle before sticking a toe in the “after” pool. “Then go try things,” Rhine says. “Go to a book club one time and check it out, volunteer for one shift someplace, join the gym.”

To further help these clients stave off anxiety and depression after retiring, Rhine also urges them to be committed about getting exercise any way they can, getting outside every day and eating well.

Rhine says it can take as long as three to six months for retirees to get their “sea legs.” She adds that people who have been working in high-stress jobs in particular are going to feel exhausted and will need to take time to rest and decompress.

In search of

Because many people do a substantial portion of their socializing through work, retirement may require a search for a new social circle, and that isn’t always easy, Moll says. Although clients have to do the work and open themselves up to these new relationships, counselors can help them identify potential social networks.

For instance, if clients have a place of worship, Moll urges them to think about how they might make connections there. If clients aren’t spiritual or religious, she asks about hobbies that might give them opportunities to meet others with similar interests.

Moll has even suggested that retired clients invite their neighbors from down the street for a backyard cookout. “Know your neighbors,” she advises. “You don’t have to adopt them. You don’t have to give them holiday gifts. Just talk.”

Moll notes that clients who are retired need to be open to meeting new people. She shares that her father was “adopted” by a bunch of younger golfing buddies whom he met while hanging out at the local bar.

Many people, but men in particular, equate their work with who they are. “Your identity may be your career or your job, but you are more than that,” Moll tells these clients. “You need to look at what the other components are that define you.”

For instance, she might ask, “Do you have areas of interest that you want to spend more time on or make money off of? Do you have extended family that you moved away from that you now want to move closer to?”

Moll says she knows many retirees who have full and busy lives that revolve around babysitting grandchildren, volunteering, working part time or traveling. “I think you need to find rhythm and passion,” she says. “You need to find a passion that you’ve dreamed of doing, being [and] having, and a rhythm that’s appropriate for you today, and just go with it.”

Rhine and Moll say that retirees’ hobbies and interests may even turn into business opportunities, part-time jobs or simply a way to earn a little money on the side. Moll had one client who had spent most of his career in retail. After retiring, he needed to supplement his income, but he didn’t want to remain in the retail field. Looking for other ideas, he and Moll talked about his interests.

“He and his wife enjoyed traveling but did not have the funds to [as he put it] ‘follow life beyond the AAA TripTik,’” Moll says. Moll and the client talked about how he might turn his interest in traveling into a job opportunity, and in a few weeks, the client arrived at his counseling appointment with big news. He had found a part-time job delivering small buses and ambulances around the United States and into Canada. The company would pay for him to fly home once the delivery was completed. The client not only turned his hobby into a money-making opportunity but was also able to share his journeys with his wife, who often went along for the ride.

“Together, they traveled throughout the Southwest, along the California coast and to Calgary, Canada,” Moll says. The client’s wife died before he did, and Moll says the memories from those trips were a source of comfort and joyous remembrance for the remainder of his life.

Crowded house

In 1991, a Japanese physician, Nobuo Kurokawa, coined the phrase “retired husband syndrome” in a presentation to the Japanese Society of Psychosomatic Medicine. For years, Kurokawa and other Japanese physicians had been seeing scores of older women with serious health problems such as ulcers, rashes, polyps, slurred speech and other ailments that were seemingly without cause. However, the women’s mysterious physical complaints appeared to have a common starting point: the retirement of their husbands. Accustomed to having the house to themselves, these Japanese wives were now confronted with spending the bulk of their time with their formerly high-powered and frequently demanding husbands — and Kurokawa theorized that it was making them sick.

Spousal tensions triggered by retirement aren’t exclusive to Japan, and they aren’t caused solely by husbands. Retirement of either or both partners can cause significant relationship strain. Even so, Rhine notes that the home is often still traditionally the woman’s bailiwick, and many of the problems she sees with clients do start when the husband retires.

“Here’s the wife — her husband is home all the time, and she’s thinking, ‘Get out!’” Rhine says. Meanwhile, the husband is trying to adjust to retirement and is unsure about what his wife needs.

“She may need to get out of the house more to be with her friends and commiserate,” Rhine says. But the same may hold true for the husband, she adds. After all, he is also dealing with the loss of his regular schedule and personal space. One possible solution is for the wife and husband to set up a schedule in which one of them goes out while the other stays home a couple of mornings each week.

Rhine also stresses communication skills — particularly the “I” statement — with her retired clients. “‘I feel this.’ ‘I need this.’ It requires you to think, ‘What is it that I feel? What is it that I need?’” she explains. These basic skills make it easier for each partner to say things such as “I feel like I need more space,” “I feel pressured” or “I feel criticized,” Rhine says.

In fact, couples need to sit down and have a conversation about retirement well before either person stops working, Moll says. Otherwise, they risk running into scenarios such as a husband working hard to map out all of his post-retirement activities, while the wife harbors plans of her own to return to school, Moll says.

“He’s retiring thinking they’re going to travel, and she’s picking up where she left off,” Moll says. “There has to be some conversation about each other’s dreams and goals and how to get those met, while also finding time to be with and enjoy each other’s company.”

Both Rhine and Moll say it is never too early to start planning for retirement.

Rhine tells clients to dream about what they want to do and to think about where they see themselves in five, 10, 15 or more years. “Allow yourself to have dreams. Hope is a big part of emotional health,” she says. “There’s going to be a lot of good chapters opening up. Will there be hard times? Yes, life has hard things, but odds are there are going to be a lot of good times [too]. Stay open to possibilities.”

Says Moll in conclusion: “We retire from work; we don’t retire from life.”




Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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