Caution: Retirement Ahead

Caution: Retirement Ahead

The very first patient I saw in my new practice when I moved to Sequim, Washington was a lady I will call Mary. After a few initial pleasantries I asked her why she was here. Without a moments hesitation she said, “I woke up in the middle of the night again last night. I had the kitchen knife in my right hand looking at my husband. I was ready to plunge it into his heart over and over again…no not really but I kind of wanted to.”

Well Mary certainly got my attention without much effort. Mary went on to talk about her frustration with her husband of 46 years. Throughout the years, they had what she considered to be a pretty good marriage, except for this past year. It was then that Bill retired as a commercial pilot. As the captain of the “ship” he was used to controlling everything regarding the airplane. After all, if he didn’t, lives were at risk.

Now, according to Mary, he continued to be the Captain but now it was of their household. And she was about to declare mutiny on this Captain! She had been in charge of the household since they were first married. She managed to make the dinners, keep the kids bathed, etc., etc. But since Bill’s retirement all of that had changed. He had become a complete control freak at home. Sure he golfs two mornings a week, but the rest of the time he allegedly had been micromanaging “all things Mary”.

I soon found out that the Mary and Bill story was not unique. It did not take long in that new practice to find an easy dozen couples struggling with the similar issue. And that issue is retirement. In short, I have become convinced that for most people, retirement is dangerous to their mental, physical, and marital health. The problem comes in most peoples notion of retirement. For thousands of Americans, retirement means stop working and…stop living. Like Bill, they may play golf or tennis regularly, but if they stop there…they are likely heading into trouble.

Having been a dog owner for years, I have noticed that dogs and humans need purpose in their lives. If dogs don’t have purpose they start chewing the furniture. Humans pretty much do the same.

The key is to find purpose as we transition from retirement into the next phase of life. We always do better when we have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. While my clinical experience tells me that this is true for both men and women, I believe more men than women tend to fall into the deep pit of lost or non-meaning. As such I am currently bending this article towards men.

The significance for a man to turn 60 varies, but typically produces more similarities than differences. For most men there is some degree of feeling that all forms of youth are about to disappear, so that only “old age” remains.

One developmental task as noted in Daniel Levinson’s book, The Seasons of a Man’s Life is to overcome the long sought after process of “separating youth and age”, and then find in each of those polarities an appropriate harmony. During late adulthood a man usually fears that the youth within him is dying and that only the old man – “an empty, dry structure devoid of energy, interests or inner resources”- will survive.

During this period of life, a man’s task is to “sustain his youthfulness in a new form appropriate to late adulthood. He must terminate and modify the earlier life structure.” If a man transitions successfully at this late adulthood stage, this period can be as full and rich as any of the other developmental stages. This is a period in which some of the best creative processes can be lived.

Life transitions may be marked by certain accomplishments. For one man I interviewed, named Tom, an important waymark for him had been the catching of a big warm water saltwater fish called a tarpon. This was expressed when Tom said, “I have screwed up this spring. I’ve never caught a tarpon, I’ve had one on twice and this was going to be the spring that I was going to catch one. And then I… My calendar got fouled up. Another friend of mine… A fishing companion called me yesterday and said he’s up on his way to Boca Grande to catch a tarpon…damn. “ “And so I start calculating… can I do it next year? I’ll be 69, I figure… I’ve got to get this done.”

Tom went on to say, “They have something in the Sioux culture in South Dakota called the Winter Count. It’s like a pictograph that they make in a buffalo hide of the most significant thing that happened to the tribe that winter. Whether there is Illness, or they had a big buffalo kill, a drought or whatever. So in the Winter Count of my mind I think…what fish did I catch this last year, or what success did I have, or what do I need to do.”

The man I was interviewing was the former news anchor and author, Tom Brokaw, at his NBC office in New York City.

Transitions can take the form of a “bucket list” like Tom was referring to, or a completely new phase of life. Two examples of men who transitioned into a new phase of life are Colonel Sanders of KFC fame and Bill Gates of Microsoft. The Colonel transitioned from being a filling station operator to the famed fast food restaurant…at age 62. Bill Gates transitioned from the huge software company to stamping out things like polio around the globe.

Those two men are pretty extreme examples of people who transition. A more down to earth example may be my friend and one of our authors, Bill Kindler. He transitioned from an executive in the paper industry, to an extraordinary small wooden boat builder out of his backyard shop.

The point to all of this is that we do need to use caution when thinking of retirement. Hopefully it never means that we quit having a reason to wake up in the morning. What it can mean is that we have an even better reason to wake up in the morning.

Tim Berry

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