Emotional Health · Health

On Emotional Health: This Is Not Your Mother’s Retirement

Jane Moffett is a doctorate-level clinical social worker with advanced certifications in trauma. She works in New York City as a psychotherapist and Area Director for the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute, as well as Clinical Director for the  Integrative Trauma Clinic at the National Institute of Psychotherapy. She has long had an interest in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality and in mind-body practices. We are calling on her three decades’ experience as a psychotherapist to speak to women in the second half of life who hope to find meaning in adversity and to develop practices for serenity.

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On an early fall afternoon, I drove from Rhode Island to New York, channel-surfing until finding an interesting call-in program about retirement. One after the other, I heard my contemporaries speak about their fears of retiring. Some worried abut money; others feared becoming marginalized—becoming the old guy or older woman; and others equated retirement with loneliness. As the miles passed, I waited for someone to call in about how much she or he was enjoying retirement. Perhaps those folks were in fact not by their radios on a lovely afternoon, but out playing tennis, in the ceramics studio, rehearsing with their theater group, tutoring, enjoying the sunny afternoon with their grandchildren, serving in the Peace Corps,  or hiking the Italian lake country with Road Scholar.

It was disappointing not to hear the other perspective. While ending a career often comes with regret, we can actively plan for retirement so as not to find ourselves bored, discontented, and isolated.

One of the nice things I find about having been in psychotherapy practice for more than 30 years is that a number of patients return for a brief therapy to explore a crossroads in life. One such patient had been a working mom, but had always dreamed of going to seminary to become a minister. When we started meeting, she reported that she had taken the leap and was following that dream. Having finished her training, she was going through a series of interviews for ordination. It was here that things started to fall apart for her. She believed that she was being treated unfairly in the interview process for ordination, and, further, that as a woman she was receiving especially harsh scrutiny.

There were serious questions to be considered: Did she want to continue, or had she become disillusioned? Could she better prepare mentally for the next stage of interviewing in order to manage her distress and stay mindful? What would happen if she couldn’t follow her dream? Ultimately she decided to continue and made it through the interviewing process to ordination. Last spring I received a short note from her saying that she loved her work with her small, suburban parish; she noted that her husband, an avid gardener, was enjoying gardening in the parish home they had been provided.

It’s fair that you might ask why she would want to work at all, and not just enjoy retirement. The answer to that question has a few parts.

Over the next ten years, 76 million baby boomers will be retiring, or roughly 8,000 boomers a day. But while we are aging, many of us—a full 61 percent, according to a Pew research study—feel a full nine years younger than our chronological age. My patient was lucky to have good health and abundant energy, and felt this was “her time” to do what she had always wanted. She and her husband both had pensions, so she could afford to work for a significantly reduced salary.

Eric Erikson identified the years from 65 and beyond as the time of “Ego Identity versus Despair,” a time when we have feelings of fulfillment and accomplishment or feelings of disappointment or despair as we look back on our lives. Retiring means, for many, giving up, or modifying, activities that have defined us. We might still be “Mom,” but for most of us, the intensive, hands-on parenting years are done. We may no longer be Dr. or Professor or CPA or JD, and this change comes with mixed feelings. From what I have observed, people do not experience simply “fulfillment/accomplishment” or “disappointment/despair”: We can feel a healthy sense of pride looking at the life goals we have achieved and also have regrets about paths not chosen and actions taken that cannot be undone. If you can accept the tradeoffs in order to have more time for yourself, your interests, and the people who mean the most to you, you are on your way to a rewarding period in your life.

Consider a patient who came to me a few years ago. She is an attractive and accomplished person who was in a rewarding senior position with an international humanitarian organization. The hitch? The organization insisted on mandatory retirement at age 62.

Having traveled the world most of her working life, she had formed her social networks and interests primarily through the agency. The feelings she had of loss of professional identity and community were enormous. Our work was to identify what she wanted to do, where and how to do it, how to build community, and how to envision working less to live a more balanced life.

She tried consulting, but that found that the work often morphed from part-time to late nights and working-weekends. She tried coaching, but over time realized she was just too introverted to be successful at the marketing and networking she had to do. Ultimately she found a university teaching position at a northeastern women’s college. She loved the work, the stimulation of the academic community, and was able to get the dog she had always wanted while also returning to her childhood love of horseback riding in the afternoons.

Aging comes with big questions as we face our own mortality and the loss of people we have loved at a time when we are still seeking ways to live fully into the present moment. A lovely woman I worked with came to me after her husband of 45 years died in a matter of weeks from pancreatic cancer. While not actively suicidal, she felt she was just “passing the time” until she too would die, since all the joy had been drained out of her life for good.

We worked together for a few years. She will always miss her husband, and holidays are hard. Step by step she reached out to a few old friends, found travel groups she could join, and became comfortable going by herself to plays, concerts, museums, and lectures. At my urging she tried a Central Park senior walking group, which she reported to dislike intensely, but she was motivated enough by the experience to find a Tai Chi class, and it has improved her balance and stamina. She has found ways to bring favorite holiday rituals forward, simplifying many of them and creating new ones with a “family” of friends, stepchildren, and cousins.

A recent study by the Centre for Ageing Studies at Flinders University in Australia indicates that a strong support system of friends increases longevity. As clinicians, we know that such support enhances feelings of well-being and the overall quality of life. If ever there was an important time to identify the community that will be your network of friends and offer a support system through the passages of aging, it is now.

Fortunately, these days—unlike our mothers—we can find organizations set up specifically to give us the support system we need to help keep us vital and engaged in the world . . . whether we’re retiring or going through some other life-transition. Consider The Transition Network, established in 2000 after its founders—two accomplished professional women—experienced feelings of considerable anxiety about what their upcoming retirements would mean for their lives. They ended up creating a nationwide community of peers, women of 50 and older involved in a range of shared interest groups—12 chapters across the country, from Boston to the San Francisco Bay Area. The Women’s Voices for Change reports on TTN’s work have included an overview of the organization; a TTNer’s counsel on Finding Friends Fast; and stories about TTN members’ volunteer work.

The “Third Act” comes with losses, but also enormous rewards. To have those rewards means, for many, reaching a bit outside of your comfort zone, perhaps making some younger friends, finally taking that university class, or spending more time pursuing artistic or outdoor interests. It is also a time for personal reflection. With a little research, you’ll find that there are a variety of interesting conversations to join—whether online or in-person. If you think of retirement as a wheel with many spokes, with some planning and networking you can create a healthy balance of health and fitness, family and relationships, lifelong learning, creating community, leisure time, travel, and spirituality.




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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, MD November 13, 2014 at 10:42 am

    This is such a thoughtful guide for everyone in our demographic when we take time for reflection about how our third act might look if everything falls into place nicely. I enjoyed being reminded of Eric Erikson’s focus on the years from 65 and beyond as the time of “Ego Identity versus Despair,” a time when we have feelings of fulfillment and accomplishment or feelings of disappointment or despair as we look back on our lives. The biggest difference between our mother’s retirement and ours is that many of us do chose to do the work we love and others need to work and continue to do so until much older age. Thank you so much Dr. Moffett for this informative and inspiring post.

  • ellensue spicer-jacobson November 13, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Excellent article. I belong to a retirement group called Full Circle that meets once each week. This is a perfect article for the group leader. Thank you.