Getting Psyched To Retire

A financial plan isn't enough. You'll need to be ready emotionally as well.

If you thought nothing would ever compare with the turmoil of adolescence, you may be in for a big surprise. A similar period of self-searching and emotional change hits people on the cusp of retirement. Ken Dychtwald, a psychologist, gerontologist, and author of Age Power: How the 21st Century will be Ruled by the New Old, calls it "middlescence."

This time in one's life, from the early 50s and beyond leading up to retirement, can be fraught with uncertainty, anxiety, and even depression if you're not prepared for it. "Psychological security in retirement is just as important as financial security," says Sara Yogev, a Chicago psychologist and author of For Better or For Worse...But Not For Lunch: Making Marriage Work in Retirement. "Still, so many people fail to prepare and plan" for the psychological component.

Think about what work does for you, and you begin to understand why retiring can leave you so unsettled. Work structures your time, can be a source of intellectual stimulation, provides social contacts, gives you an identity, and builds your self-esteem. In our society, you are what you do. Stop doing it, and you can lose your sense of yourself. For some people, a steady diet of leisure activities can fill the void. But for many others, the initial euphoria of having all that free time can quickly turn into boredom or despair.

That's what happened to Bernard Salevitz. Five years ago, at 65, he left a thriving urology practice in New York and moved with his wife, Carolyn, to Scottsdale, Ariz., where they had built a second home and one of their two children lived. After three months, "I mentally and physically collapsed," Salevitz says. While he thought he'd just play golf and travel, "there was no challenge or stimulation in my life, and that was a big mistake." What saved him was returning to work at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, where he teaches residents and sees patients three days a week. "It brought me back to civilization," he says.

Salevitz was lucky in that, as a physician, he had highly marketable skills and could land a job quickly. But you really don't want to wait until a crisis hits to figure out what you want to do. You need to start thinking and preparing for this next phase of your life well in advance of your actual retirement.

The focus should be on "where can I make the biggest contribution and have the most fun," says Phyllis Moen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who studies retirement issues. Will it be working with the Peace Corps, teaching adult education courses, helping out a nonprofit organization, or serving on advisory boards for fledgling companies? Jot your ideas down in a notebook.

To better prepare for the transition, speak with friends and colleagues who might offer leads or contacts. Talk to people who are already retired. They have firsthand experience with the decisions you're facing and can tell you what they did and how it's working out. Ask what kinds of things surprised them and if they would have done anything differently five years before they retired.

FIVE STAGES

A frank discussion with your spouse is crucial in making the change go more smoothly. You need to decide where you're going to live, how much leisure time to build into your schedule, and -- if you both want to travel -- whether you'll be sleeping in a Winnebago (WGO ) or the Ritz-Carlton (MAR ). "Retirement is not a one-time event or an extended vacation," Yogev says. "It's a change of life." In fact, Yogev identifies five stages of retirement: preparation, celebration, honeymoon, reality, and reorientation.

Seeking the support of a career counselor or therapist who specializes in work transitions might also help. You can ask your human resources office for referrals. This may be especially important if you're a hard-charging professional who has had time for little else other than building a career. You may not have other interests or hobbies to sustain you outside of work.

You can also turn to the dozens of books and Web sites that specialize in retirement. One site, retire2enjoy.com, has an entire section on the psychology of retirement, complete with four pages of books on the subject. The AARP site, aarp.org, has a good section on careers and community service.

Most people are likely to want to continue working, either in a volunteer position or for pay. If you're interested in staying connected to your company, ask about phased retirement. This is where older employees stay on to assist less experienced workers, sometimes on a part-time or project-by-project basis.

Steve Vernon, a vice-president with benefits consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide (WW ), has clients who offer their employees phased retirement, and now Vernon is planning to work out such an arrangement for himself. In about four years -- when he's 55 and his youngest child graduates from college -- Vernon intends to cut back at Watson Wyatt to three days a week. He would like to use the time he has freed up to get involved with an organization that promotes environmental causes and to speak on a topic that he's currently writing a book about -- finding meaningful work in retirement. "I still want to work, but I also want to contribute to society," he says.

Although phased retirement is growing in popularity, you may want to try your hand at something new. Think about skills you learned that are transferable to other jobs. As general counsel of BMW of North America, Dennis Helfman has become an expert in automotive regulation and German law. He has also enjoyed lecturing on these topics at business meetings. Now Helfman, 57, whose company encourages him to retire at age 60, is making plans to teach graduate business and law students. His wife, Alyce, a high school librarian, hopes to land part-time work in a public library.

Although they live in New Jersey, Helfman has been contacting universities in Michigan, where he has a second home, and Florida, where he is likely to spend the winters. He is offering to give guest lectures. "It gives the schools an opportunity to try me out, and I can learn what I need to do to become an adjunct professor," he says.

Despite all his plans, Helfman doesn't just want to work. He's an avid cook and enjoys entertaining. Like Helfman, consider how else you will fill your time as you think about scaling back your working hours. Classes? Hobbies? Make sure you have a well-thought-out daily and weekly schedule to structure your days.

All this planning may seem daunting if you were expecting to coast into retirement. Unless you give serious thought now to how you'll fill your days, you could be facing an emotional crisis that may feel a lot worse than adolescent angst.

By Toddi Gutner

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