The First Day of the Rest of Your Life
Retirement May Not Be What Couples Expect
The day Jim Ellis retired, as soon as he got home he put his suitcase in the closet and announced to his wife, Jayne that he was never going to travel again. Jayne had been looking forward to a time when they finally could vacation together and enjoy retirement.
Eventually Jayne went to a travel agency and bought a 10-countries-in-14-days package for herself. Jim moped around for a few days and then asked, “Do you think there’s a place for one more on that tour?”
That was 19 years ago. Since then Jayne and Jim have traveled throughout North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For many couples, the adjustment to the husband’s retirement is not so easy.
Married couples ideally look forward to the time when they can enjoy each other’s company, yet finding balance in retirement requires exploration as roles change. James Kvale, MD, certified in geriatrics and professor of Family and Community Medicine at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston, points out that men and women experience retirement differently. “Particularly for men, retirement is perceived as a significant loss, a time in which all that has characterized their lives heretofore is suddenly changed.”
Self-defined as the breadwinners, often with a cadre of friends with whom they’ve interacted at their jobs, “they no longer have that identity, and no longer do they have the security of that income.
” He notes that wonderful things they had hoped to do in retirement may not be possible financially or physically. “Men may get into difficulty with their health and their behaviors [with substance abuse], and statistically, many who functioned at higher levels may die only three to four years after retirement.”
For better or worse, but not for lunch
Sharon Ostwald, PhD, RN, professor in gerontological nursing, and director of the UT Center on Aging points out that women who have developed social networks usually continue these activities after retirement, while men, who have depended on their wives for social arrangements, often just sit at home.
Ostwald, also a faculty member at the UT Medical School and School of Public Health mentions that similar situations occur in many societies when men, who have depended on their jobs for their identity, retire. Japanese women have even developed a term for these clingy, stay-at-home husbands: wet falling leaves.
How to enjoy the rest of your life
Plan the future
Both Ostwald and Kvale agree that planning is the key in this life transition. Retirement seminars offered by churches and synagogues and groups such as AARP can be helpful in defining the new roles both spouses will play in their futures. Kvale encourages “trying to anticipate what is ahead, planning for it and not being overwhelmed when it occurs. Because you know what’s happening, this is a positive and appropriate way of handling retirement.”
While it might be obvious that spouses should communicate and wives should be patient and supportive, Ostwald says that husbands may find talking to their wives difficult. She suggests men informally create a new set of friends:
- Join a health club
- Find a hobby association
- Become a regular at a local coffee shop
- Try to remember that one thing you complained that you never had time to do/study/invent/learn
Kvale adds that friends still employed at their former workplaces, with whom they once had so much in common, generally will not be part of the transition.
Men generally define themselves by their work. In retirement, finding new meaning in life becomes a priority. Kvale mentions an attorney friend, whose life had become a list of “honey-dos”, “struggled until he found other activities and functions that would take up his time in a meaningful fashion and take him out of the handy-man role.”
For some retirees, as the family dynamics change, grown children see retired parents as baby-sitters. Lonely older parents often add to the stress of this transition with their demands for companionship.
Ostwald stresses the importance of hobbies such as running, photography, sailing, study groups, travel and volunteering, “particularly for men who need to have their interaction around an activity. Especially those who retire at 60 or so are much too young to go home and sit down.”
- Cultural groups
- Schools needing people to teach a child
- Hospitals and healthcare facilities
- Study groups
- Religious involvement
Help for depression
While this is a period of adjustment for both partners and transition during the first year is the bumpiest, couples should seek help at the first signs of depression:
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Changes in eating habits
- Increases or decreases in weight
- Other bodily changes indicating something just isn’t right.
Kvale says counseling combined with medication is the best treatment. Ostwald adds, “If it’s been a month, six weeks, or two months with a lack of interest in life, they need to talk to someone. And usually the spouse is not the person, because the spouse may be frustrated, as well, that this person can’t get on with life. And maybe sympathy isn’t what they need any way.”
Both agree that medication for a short period of time to improve mood during transition should begin without delay, and there is no negative stigma attached to discussing retirement with someone who can help.
Kvale recalls that while taking an afternoon walk during a visit to his brother’s retirement community, he passed successive homes in which he noticed people sitting on their balconies having afternoon cocktails.
As a physician for a retirement home, he also has noticed alcohol consumption among residents. He warns, “I’m not diminishing the salutary effect of alcohol. There are some benefits from it. But when people are uncomfortable, the immediate relief that comes with consumption of alcohol becomes habitual.”
He fears retirement may become a time of chemical dependency and points out that with people who were physically active in their jobs, becoming sedentary may also lead to other health problems that accompany alcoholism, including diabetes and heart disease.
Women who retire
Women who have not worked outside the home have developed social patterns that may change little after they retire. Those who had been employed have developed social circles, also. Yet, women of the current generation were among the first to be admired for “thinking like a man” in the business world, and many who achieved prominence in business face similar problems to men in retirement. Kick in the added problem of becoming caretakers or perhaps taking on jobs they had handed out to others in the past, such as cleaning and cooking, and what follows isn’t “happily ever after.”
For these women, retirement may present the same challenges confronting some men: finding new meaning to their lives, overcoming the demands of family members and facing down substance abuse.
Older relatives with fears of declining health and loneliness make demands on early retirees, who can see themselves facing similar situations in the not-so-distant future.
Ostwald directs the ARISE Consultation Center, providing services that improve the quality of life and dignity of an aging society. ARISE brings together critical services needed by individuals and their family members to cope with aging changes and caregiving challenges.
For more information about ARISE: call 713-500-8250.