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Retirement – What Does it Mean to You?

When I ask people what retirement means to them, the typical response is ‘no longer working’.

Retirement, they say, means having time to clean up the garage, knit that second cabled sock or plan a long-coveted trip to South Africa. Time-starved professionals talk about retirement as the rest they couldn’t afford in the regime of work and commute.

Retirees shed light on what it can be like to have a glut of time, especially when retirement came earlier than expected. Samuel, a previous accountant who worked 9 to 6 daily, shared, ‘it seems like when you get that freedom, there is too much time to fill in. There’s an uncertainty over what you will do’. Having a working spouse and an emptied nest, Samuel said that he gets starved of company by the end of the week. ‘I tried talking to the dogs but they don’t answer,’ he jested.

Retirement is not always seen positively. Focus groups conducted with baby boomers by The Australia Institute in 2006 show that many baby boomers associate retirement with negative stereotypes of ageing, such as frailty, disempowerment and inactivity. Retirement is a major life transition. Approximately one-third of people find this period of change stressful.

Work, to many people, is a fundamental component of self-definition. You are what you do. Hence, retirement can be experienced as a loss of identity. In the absence of other significant activities or meaningful work, an existential crisis can arise. Additionally, social networks may revolve around work before retirement. Loneliness can set in when these social contacts are gone. If you do not have a diverse social network, you may feel estranged. The concern raised most frequently is financial capacity. Being employed generally produces a regular source of income. Sustaining one’s current lifestyle in the face of the ever-rising cost of living seems a daunting ambition.

Changing roles within relationships sometimes take coupled retirees by surprise, especially when their partners are not retired. Retired partners may become more involved with household chores like cooking, even if they have never turned on the stove before. If this is not a welcome change, retired partners may find it stressful.

There is a large body of evidence on what improves your transition to retirement. Good health is probably the indisputable number one requirement for a great retirement. Successful ageing includes a low likelihood of disease and disease-related disability, good physical and cognitive functioning. Contrary to what many may believe, successful ageing is not a matter of luck of escaping conditions such as cancers and neurological diseases.

When researchers examine the onset of morbidity and mortality, stress was found to be associated with cellular ageing. Higher levels of stress and cellular ageing go hand in hand. When you engage in activities that reduce stress, such as mindfulness, you combat ageing. Other good health behaviors and habits, such as having a healthy diet, avoiding dependence on drugs and alcohol, and maintaining personal hygiene, are important for physical health. Although a person’s age is a good predictor of disability, there is great variability across people. There are 80-year-olds running marathons and leaving healthy 30-year-olds in their dust.

What about brain health, you may ask. What’s the point of being physically well if my mind is impaired? The concept of the ageing mind has shifted due to a new understanding of the adult brain. There is emerging evidence that the adult brain is capable of producing new neurons (neurogenesis) and is malleable (neural plasticity). Having an enriched environment that provides sensory, cognitive and motor stimulation delays cognitive decline.  Hang around people important to you and train your brain with meaningful social interactions. Engage in complex activities with an outlet for self-expression and a sense of mastery. It’s never too late to get in touch with the arty-farty side of you.

Knowing financial terms and being clear on your financial goals is a definite plus for retirement adjustment. Knowing the lingo helps you to budget and invest better. If you believe you have insufficient funds for complete withdrawal from the workforce, you may wish to look at increasing your work-related skills and knowledge to enhance employability and meet your financial obligations.

What is little known, perhaps, is the effect of retirement on relationships. Retirement reinforces marital quality. Retiring with a good relationship is likely to increase the stability of the relationship. Those who retire with less satisfying relationships are likely to experience further decline. The good gets better and the inverse is true. Given that you are likely to see your spouse or partner more often than ever before, having a supportive relationship contributes significantly to your happiness in retirement. In bad times, a supportive relationship is a buffer against negative outcomes. In good times, joy is amplified.

Retiring well is not a matter of luck. It is dependent on good planning in several domains of life. If you are coupled, increasing relationship satisfaction and planning with your partner to meet each other’s needs and preferences will contribute to retirement bliss.

About Angie Ho: 

Angie Ho is a Doctor of Clinical Psychology candidate at the University of Queensland. Angie Ho and Prof Kim Halford are currently developing a retirement planning program for couples aged 50 to 70.

Retirement Planning workshops

Angie and her colleague Prof Kim Halford are seeking for couples to participate in couple interviews to understand topics of interest for couples planning for retirement. Information gathered from these interviews will be used to develop a retirement planning workshop for couples. Participants need to be aged 50 to 70 years, where one partner, or both partners, is engaged in some form of paid work.

For more information, go to https://exp.psy.uq.edu.au/couples/index.html?project=retirement