Plan can protect your mental health

I’ve seen up close and personal the complications that can occur when an individual retires without a plan. We were shifting, for my work, from up Newcastle way back to Melbourne. Halfway down the Hume Highway, Margie, my wife, announces she’s going to retire. 

No surprise there, she’d been mulling over the decision for quite some time. She was a diversional therapist in aged care and, to her mind, the industry had become over-regulated and restrictive to the point where she spent more time at her desk than on the floor with residents (the part she enjoyed most).

“So, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

That uncertainty lasted for about 15 months. It took her that long to work out who she was and what she wanted to do in her retirement. It was as if she was lost and without direction. It frustrated her.

She now has an active, involved, creative and enjoyable retirement. And she allows me to tell her story whenever I think it will help others. This is one of those times.

Anxiety and depression
I asked a clinical psychologist friend what she thought could be the major problem for those who retired without planning. “Anxiety and depression,” was her immediate answer.

Of course, there would be anxiety if retirement were merely a black hole. Where do you start? How do you negotiate this with your partner, if you have one? What will you do with the next 20 or 30 years of your life? It takes time to work through issues such as these.

This could easily lead to depression. I had seen anxiety and some depression in Margie –along with the frustration of not knowing who she was or what she was meant to be doing.

Good transitions need good planning
Retirement is a major life transition. Actually, getting to retirement means you have already gone through several life transitions. These can include: home to school; high school to the workplace, a trade or university; marriage; divorce, perhaps; children, and so on.

At retirement, we’re already experienced ‘transitioners’. That’s a bonus, but the transition to retirement is easier when it’s planned. Nancy Schlossberg, in her book, Too Young to be Old, points out that the transition to retirement brings changes in your “roles, relationships, routines and assumptions.”

Assumptions? Yes. You don’t really understand what parenting is like until you experience it. And you won’t really understand your retirement until you actually get there, but planning for it helps give it structure.

“It can be difficult, even painful, to experience change,” writes Professor Schlossberg. “But avoiding it is not an option…. The basic question is how you embrace your transitions.” That’s more than a ‘what will you do’ question, it’s also a mental health question.

Planning puts you in control
Tim Carey, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Charles Darwin University, says “psychological distress is experienced when people feel unable to control their thoughts, actions, emotions or some other aspect of their day-to-day living.” 

He suggests that “control over life circumstances reduces chronic stress and has favourable biological effects.”

Crucial to the notion of control is the ability of people to lead lives they have reason to value. “What is important is not so much what you have, but what you can do with what you have.”

Planning your retirement gives you control and helps to make it your retirement. It’s personal – and it should be.

Living on purpose takes planning
Purposeful living is important for a successful retirement. That’s the finding of Michael Longhurst in his book, Enjoying Retirement. It comes from his Retire 200 study, an in-depth study of 200 Australian retirees.

“It makes sense that those who keep themselves busy will fare better emotionally than those who lie around doing nothing,” he says. And, if an activity has a purpose, it will prove to be more rewarding.

In a sense, you take your purpose with you into retirement, but changes come with your new status. It’s best to think those things through before you get there, so you can hit the ground running, while being flexible when needed.

In writing Life on Purpose, Victor Stretcher found that “the strength of one’s life purpose – which involves a combination of living according to your values and goals, and striving to make a positive difference in the world – can be measured … it correlates highly with psychological wellness.”

Your plan needs to be your plan
As a child, you may have tried wearing a parent’s shoes and they would have slopped around or tripped you up. It’s fun to play like grown-ups as a child.

As an adult, it’s time to be who you are. You would make a poor someone else.

Gustavo Razzetti, on the Psychology Today website, says, “No one knows yourself better than you do. No one but yourself can choose how you live.”

He warns that it’s too easy to lose control of our lives through social pressure and envying other people’s ‘perfect lives’. That simply leads to frustration because you aren’t being true to yourself.

Mr Razzetti advises: “You are in charge. Love your life. Accept the worst and hope for the best.”

The WHO on mental health
According to the World Health Organisation, “mental health is a state of wellbeing in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Note the four elements to mental health here: realising your own abilities, coping with the normal stresses of life, working productively and making a contribution to your community.

As you look at your retirement, you could ask how well you’re planning in these areas. Then you could work out how you will make sure you have this kind of balance in retirement.

Is it too late for me?
If you haven’t planned for retirement and it’s only a few weeks or days away, or you’ve just had it thrust upon you, what can you do?

First: Don’t panic. You can still create something great in your retirement.

Second: Take the time to create a plan. Don’t just settle on a lounge in front of the TV. This is time for pen, paper and thinking.

Third: Think about this time of life in bite-sized pieces. Start with planning the first six months (that’s usually quite easy). Then think about the first year. Finally, when you’re ready, the first five years.

It’s never too late to plan your retirement, but the earlier you start, the better – for you and your mental health.

Bruce Manners has a PhD in sociology and ‘retired’ at the end of 2014 after working as a commercial fisherman, church pastor and magazine editor. He has written several books, including Retire Ready? and operates the retirement website retirenotes.com.

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Written by Bruce Manners

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