In the 1977 song that would become an unofficial anthem for his legions of fans, Jimmy Buffett famously sang about “wasting away in Margaritaville,” “searching for [his] lost shaker of salt” and doing many of the things that people contemplating retirement expect to do when they leave the full-time workforce behind and dive into their golden years.
So, perhaps it’s not surprising that Buffett, now in his mid-70s, has a retirement community in Florida that was named one of Where to Retire magazine’s “50 best master-planned communities in the U.S.” in 2019.
It turns out that retirement is about master planning. And maintaining social networks. And finding meaning. In other words, it’s about many things that professional counselors can help to guide clients through, whether these individuals are contemplating retirement or already retired.
Retirement as a developmental stage
“People are living longer and retiring earlier,” says Louis Primavera, a licensed psychologist who co-authored The Retirement Maze: What You Should Know Before and After You Retire with Rob Pascale and Rip Roach. “And it means that retirement has changed from a short-term event to another developmental stage.”
Before writing The Retirement Maze in 2012, Primavera and his co-authors surveyed 1,500 retirees and 400 people of retirement age who were still in the workforce to see how the two groups compared emotionally, to look at the expectations of prospective retirees and judge whether those expectations were realistic, to uncover problems encountered by retirees and, finally, to put those problems under a microscope and determine how best to deal with them or avoid them altogether.
The first issue Primavera, Pascale and Roach had to resolve before disseminating the survey was to formulate a definition of “retirement.” Coming up with a definition was not easy because many retirees still work to some extent. What distinguishes them from people who work full time?
“Working retirees,” Primavera and his co-authors wrote, “tend to be less emotionally invested in their jobs and have more say as to the terms of their employment, such as the types of tasks performed, or the number of hours worked. Also, retirees think of themselves as retirees.”
“Retirement is no longer seen as the complete end of work after a career of full-time jobs,” they added. “Instead, work is now seen as one potential element of the retiree lifestyle.”
Retirement is a process. Some individuals adjust well to retirement within months. For others, the adjustment takes years. Primavera, Pascale and Roach wrote that three elements are key in a person’s ability to adjust: health, financial stability and subjective well-being. Subjective well-being, simply, is a person’s happiness. That happiness is affected by productivity, self-esteem, a feeling of being in control, a sense of purpose and a sense of being connected to others.
Retirement, then, isn’t as easy as deciding to spend more time with the grandchildren. In fact, as many retirees experience firsthand, it can be very hard work.
“People start out flying when they retire and they’re doing well,” says Primavera, who estimates that 40% of people who retire aren’t fully adjusted within one or two years. “Then, things change. There’s confusion. What am I going to do with my time? How am I going to structure my day? When people first retire, they might get up late, they might not change their clothes. They’re on vacation.”
All vacations end though. Which leads to a question that retirees and prospective retirees routinely ask themselves: Now what?
Although workers might spend a portion of their days lamenting how much they hate their jobs, work provides structure. But with no imposed structure after retirement? With a gap in meaning that was previously filled by work — even if that work could also be a source of anxiety? Now what?
The importance of structure
“Structure is the most important thing in all this,” Primavera says. “You take people who are seriously mentally ill. One characteristic, no matter what the diagnosis, is that they’re totally unstructured. It’s the same for everybody. A lot of people have had trouble through the pandemic, for example. What structure was there? A lot of people have been flying by the seat of their pants.”
The quality of the structure is also significant.
“Structuring your days so that you’re including exercise and social activities and not just staring at a TV is important,” says E. Christine Moll, a counseling lecturer at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, and a past president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging, a division of the American Counseling Association. “Maybe you’re going out for coffee every day. Maybe you’re volunteering one or two days a week. Maybe you’re having meals with family, meals with your neighbors. That’s structure.”
Professional counselors can discuss the importance of structure and ways that their clients can implement it. The goal is not for clients to know what they will be doing every second, minute or hour of every day; it’s that they will understand the importance of doing something.
Structure isn’t something that most people who work full time find it necessary to consider. They typically wake up to an alarm, make breakfast, and hustle out the door with a cup of coffee in hand to go to a job that they may or may not like. They follow this routine the next day and the next day and the next day, relax on the weekend, and the cycle repeats itself when Monday comes around.
But when there isn’t a job to go to, structure is no longer a given. It’s up to retirees to create their own structure.
“People need a reason to get up in the morning,” says Deborah Heiser, founder of The Mentor Project and co-editor of the book Spiritual Assessment and Intervention With Older Adults. “That doesn’t change when you retire.”
‘Piecing’ together retirement
No matter how much planning and counseling are conducted beforehand, many issues can crop up and surprise clients once the initial euphoria of not having to report to the office wears off.
Take, for example, the social piece.
“If you examine it, 40% of your social network [is] people you work with,” Primavera says. “So, you’re losing a big part of your social network.”
“People might be having problems at work, with obligations, with other aspects,” adds Heiser, an adjunct professor of psychology at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. “But work still gives us an opportunity to socialize with each other.”
For “the client who lives alone, the social piece is very important,” says Sharon Givens, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in career counseling and heads the Visions Counseling and Career Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. “They don’t have co-workers they can engage with on a daily basis. They can volunteer, take on part-time positions, anything that keeps them in contact with other people.”
Getting involved in new activities is one way for retirees to meet other people. Reestablishing connections with old friends and family — many of whom the retiree may have unintentionally neglected due to responsibilities imposed by work — is another way to satisfy the need for socialization.
“The person you might see three times a year, increase the number of those contacts,” Primavera advises. “There’s someone I know, Bob, he’s retired, and we have lunch every three or four weeks. He has lunch with other friends. We all have friends we probably don’t see often whose company we enjoy. If you’re retired, it’s easier to see them.”
There is also the meaning/identity piece to consider as it relates to retirement. Go to a social gathering, and one of the first things people ask is what you do. It’s an easy answer when you’re working: “I’m a lawyer.” “I’m a doctor.” “I’m a truck driver.”
The answer isn’t as easy after retirement, although it still exists. It just might take some time finding it.
“You can get meaning by volunteering in something completely different than your career or by giving back by using the skills you learned in your career. You know, like financial people volunteering to do financial work at a senior center during tax season,” Moll says. “You can do Meals on Wheels. You can do anything that gives you purpose. And that changes. It’s not for me [the counselor] to say what brings purpose. It’s for the person to find out.”
There is also the couples and family piece. Both members of a couple might work or only one may be employed. Whatever the situation, it changes when one partner decides to retire. To minimize potential problems, it could be a good idea to go through couples or family counseling before one of the family members drops out of the workforce.
“The client should have conversations with the family about what they’re planning on doing, what it might mean,” Moll says. “You might want to talk about … what happens to the family dynamic after retirement.”
And what if a client decides they want not only to retire but also to move in the process? True, people can connect via the internet, and friends and relatives can visit retirees in, say, Florida. “But I don’t know if absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Moll says. “That’s something that can be discussed in counseling beforehand.”
Surveying the horizon
Givens uses what she calls the SWOT approach when counseling clients who are considering retirement.
“It’s about discussing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats a person might encounter,” she explains. “What new opportunities could retirement open up? What problems could retirement present? Is the person ready financially? Emotionally?”
To get clients to think about post-retirement life, she asks them a question: “What will you do that you couldn’t do because you’ve been working?”
Kimberly Johnson, a licensed mental health counselor in New York and program director for clinical mental health at Touro College, now works primarily with frontline workers navigating the coronavirus pandemic. But she has counseled people navigating life transitions, including retirement, throughout her 25-plus years as a counselor.
Johnson remembers one client who came to her initially to work on other issues. But as Johnson counseled her client, she realized that much of the client’s angst stemmed from her job.
“The environment at work had come to a place where she just didn’t feel like she wanted to stay anymore,” Johnson says. “She already was vested. She was going to have her pension. She probably would have stayed if the environment was better.”
The problem for Johnson’s client, who was in her late 50s, was that she felt that she was being forced out. Johnson wanted the client to look at the situation differently. “A lot of it was about having her think that she made the decision rather than the decision being foisted upon her,” Johnson says.
What did Johnson do to help her client get to a good place emotionally? “First, we role-played how she would confront her supervisor,” Johnson says. “And we tried to visualize what it would be like after she left and how she could prepare for it. We talked about potential feelings that might come up when she was gone.”
It all was about turning negative thoughts about retirement into positive thoughts. “She started to look at it not as an end but as a transition in life,” Johnson says. “She did a little bit of her own writing describing what her life would be like after leaving her place of employment and the kinds of things that she could look forward to. It was about not getting caught up in the grieving of this transition but also celebrating what was on the horizon.”
The result? “She did go through some grieving but was able to process that and move on to new activities,” Johnson says. “She found a way to kind of reinvent herself. As far as I know, and I haven’t seen her for a while, she is in a positive place.”
One size does not fit all
How does Moll counsel clients who are considering retirement? She says it depends on the client because — as in other areas of counseling — one size does not fit all.
“I do think that there’s sort of disenchantment that happens with work, like ‘I’m tired of this job. I’m ready. I’m ready to be done with this. I’ve given what I can give,’” Moll says. “It’s important as a counselor to work through that emotion and maybe ask, ‘Is it time to retire?’
“I might open up the conversation with what has to happen before you step away. To really have a conversation about, I guess, two to three areas of life — what needs to happen, what needs to be put into place so that the person can leave as seamlessly as possible from that position?”
Moll encourages clients to consult with financial advisers, and she emphasizes the impact that a person’s retirement will have on the rest of the family. “You should have conversations with your partner,” Moll tells clients who are considering retirement.
Heiser discusses the importance of clients finding purposeful activities such as Habitat for Humanity and talks to clients about redefining their purpose. “Your purpose could be your grandchildren. It could be gardening. It could be pickleball,” she says.
Heiser also stresses the importance of therapists being supportive of clients who are considering retirement. “Tell your clients that it’s OK to change [their] mind. It’s OK to take a part-time job. It’s OK if retirement isn’t exactly what you thought it would be. Tell clients that a lot of people are going through this at the same time,” she says.
Primavera emphasizes structure, which he contends is the single most important thing for someone to maintain in retirement. The form of the structure can change, however.
“You plan, but you also have to be flexible,” he says. “Be willing to try different things. Be open to new ideas.”
Primavera recounts a story about a person who was surveyed for The Retirement Maze.
“We interviewed a CEO who loved to play golf when he was still working. Every opportunity he got to play, he was out on the course,” Primavera says. “He retired a year later, and we asked how much golf did he play. He wasn’t playing anymore.
“We asked, ‘Why not?’ He said golf was a distraction when he was working. When he retired, it became his job. So, the things you think you may want to do, you may not end up wanting to do them.”
This is where flexibility comes in. Work and golf and pickleball and all sorts of factors are intertwined. One factor changes — a person retires — and it has a ripple effect on everything else.
“The point is that we all have to figure out what is best for us,” Primavera says. “And the only way you do that is to experiment. You research and experiment. If I had a client who said, ‘I’m unhappy,’ I would say, ‘Well, what makes you happy? Let’s go out and try a few things.’”
Some of those new things might even turn into work.
“Retirement is a funny business,” Primavera observes. “People often will retire from a job and then go back and work part time. It’s not unusual. Or they’ll find another job [that] is like what they were doing. We call it a bridge job. We interviewed one guy who actually ended up working more hours after he retired than he did when he was working. We asked him why he considered himself retired. He said, ‘Because I can quit anytime I want to.’”
Primavera doesn’t want to leave his job as dean of the School of Health Sciences at Touro College or stop being a therapist or an author. He says he enjoys his work too much. And, besides, “I love talking about retirement.”
Moll tried out retirement once before after spending 33 years as a professor at Canisius College. Today, she is a lecturer in the Department of Counselor Education at Kean University and doesn’t plan on retiring again anytime soon.
“I still love teaching,” she says. “I’m happy being me and doing what I enjoy. And when I don’t enjoy this anymore, that’ll be my sign that I need to retire and maybe sit on the beach with some margaritas.”
Chris Morkides is a recently retired therapist trying to navigate the retirement waters with the help of his wife, Alisa, daughter, Kina, and two cats. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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