When retirement is a rocky road

If you’re experiencing some hurdles in retirement or finding the prospect of retirement somewhat daunting, where do you turn? Judy Rafferty is a psychologist with more than 20 years’ experience and author of Retirement Your Way – A practical guide to knowing what you want and how to get it. We asked her for some guidance to help us on our way.

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YourLifeChoices: Your book, Retirement Your Way, suggests you see many people seeking help to deal with retirement or the prospect of retirement. Was this the motivation for the book?
Judy Rafferty:
Yes, I was seeing quite a few retired people in my psychology practice and my work with them was a significant part of my being inspired to write. But also, my husband decided to retire. And that, quite literally, brought home the challenges of retirement. Whenever I have a challenge, personal or professional, I tend to go looking for information. I did this and I did not find anything that really helped. There was a lot of information about retirement, especially financial information, but very little on identifying the likely personal challenges and how to address them.

Was retirement ever the ‘golden years’?
All of us immediately think of retirement when we hear that term the ‘golden years’. But interestingly, the term was coined to refer to retirement in an advertising campaign 60 years ago. Before that, no-one thought of retirement as the golden years. In fact, the average length of retirement in the 1950s was only eight years. The advertising ‘golden years campaign’ was for Sun City in Arizona, which was the first development of a large-scale retirement community. It was very successful because for the first time it promoted retirement as a holiday by providing a type of adult playground with multiple recreational facilities.

So, the idea of retirement being a time of doing whatever you wanted for yourself has only been around for about 60 years. During that 60 years, it certainly has been a golden experience in comparison to the retirements of previous generations.

Are baby boomers redefining retirement in a way that’s unlike any previous generation? If so why?
Baby boomers grew up without a world war in a time of unparalleled prosperity. They became consumers and their spending has been vital in sustaining world economies. The characteristics of baby boomers, such as independence, an optimism that having and doing is freely available and a can/will-do attitude has redefined retirement expectations. Baby boomers do not see themselves as getting old and slowing down. They want to keep having and keep doing. Currently, baby boomers are responsible for 80 per cent of spending on luxury travel.

Your book is actually a manual with tasks to complete and then revisit. It makes the reader do rather than just read and move on. Explain the power in ‘doing’.
Reading is passive learning and doing is active learning. It is important to have the information you need and want and reading provides this. But then, you must activate that learning. Perhaps think of reading as establishing the foundations and doing as building the house of your dreams on those foundations.

In my book, you will read the research, the experience of others and be provided with useful tools. That is all great, but it is even better if you convert that information into an integral and useable part of your life. You do that by completing the tasks that I have designed and put into each chapter. By doing the tasks, you get to decide what works for you, what enhances your life and to actively embrace it.

Is the ‘problem’ of retirement that it is so individual and couples, in particular, need to re-explore where they are going and acknowledge their journeys may be quite different?
That’s right. Each person, whether you are part of a couple or not, needs to develop a clear vision of retirement that contains your own hopes and expectations. Then, if you are part of a couple, it is important to share your vision with your partner. The next step is to create a combined retirement vision. What will you be doing separately? What will you be doing together? I know one couple where (in the pre-COVID-19 world) the wife loves to travel to faraway places and her husband likes to stay home, within easy reach of their caravan, which is parked beside a riverbank. In their combined vision, they have agreed that whenever Kelly goes on a holiday alone, for a maximum of three weeks away as money allows, they spend two weeks in the caravan on her return.

Obviously health and wealth are major players in retirement, but if you had to nominate one other area that is pivotal, what would it be?
Both are important. If you have money but poor health, having money will assist but it won’t solve the problem. Poor health will be a limitation. If you have good health but insufficient money, then the lack of financial resources can limit you. I would always choose health over wealth. Luckily, we live in a country where, while having money is very important, we do have other supports in place so that we can access those factors that make for a healthy and happy retirement even without spare money. The top actions that help us in retirement are to be connected with others, to contribute to something that is bigger than just our own lives, to have a sense of purpose, to get outside and, to keep physically and mentally active. You can do all of those things without money.

Is retirement actually an ongoing exercise to work through and adapt where necessary – if you can?
Yes. It is so important to keep reviewing your life and your retirement vision. Otherwise life can run you instead of you running it. I continually stress the importance of having a retirement vision and updating it as time goes on. We talk about, and we look for, balance in life. But balance is not something we achieve and can then relax with the expectation of staying in balance. A vision is the same. You can have a vision, and even achieve it, but you have to keep re-visioning. Imagine someone starting a business. They begin with a vision and then act accordingly. However, after the business has been up and running for a while, the entrepreneur has to re-vision the business and act in accordance with the updated vision. Perhaps think of your own life as a small business. It must return you a profit so that you can continue to flourish. There will be many factors you cannot control while you try to run your retirement business: economic downturns, family turnovers and fallouts, physical losses, to name a few. To ensure you are coming out ahead, you will need to rethink, re-vision and then adapt and work around the things you cannot change.

You’ve written a chapter on the ‘happiness hijackers’. Can you explain the main culprits?
The happiness hijackers are anxiety, depression, stress and anger. We can all experience these states at any time in our lives. But they can hit us unexpectedly on retirement.

On the Holmes and Rahe Stress scale, which consists of 43 items, retirement is rated as number 10! And the typical changes resulting from retirement are listed all through the scale as top stress creators. Stress places strain on relationships, causes sleeplessness, produces anxiety and much more. Remember that change, even if it is a positive change, often creates anxiety. We also know how stress can be expressed as anger. Anger can hide unhappiness. But perhaps the main culprit is a sneaky depression.

The London-based Institute of Economic Affairs published a study that showed the likelihood of suffering with depression goes up by about 40 per cent once you retire. Another study showed that this is particularly the case for men. It is very hard for people to admit to the low mood and lack of motivation when they are supposed to be having the enviable experience of retiring.

I would encourage anyone who is not feeling 100 per cent psychologically, with perhaps signs like irritability, loss of interest in life and in sex, worrying, wakefulness, to simply have a chat with a psychologist. It is easy to arrange and usually a very relaxed and supportive experience.

We would expect you to be a master of retirement given your knowledge, but what would be your main concerns?
I can’t claim to be a master of retirement or of anything else! However, my main concern for retirement is that people live it well. I think it is a particularly important life stage. It is usually one of our last. In retirement, we want to live the life we aspire to live and to bring our best selves into being. And we want to have fun!

And a final word of advice for our members?
Create a vision of your retirement. It doesn’t matter if you have been retired for years or if you have yet to retire. The vision is your map. And regularly review and update your vision. Don’t keep following an old map!

Retirement Your Way – A practical guide to knowing what you want and how to get it can be purchased via any online retailer including Amazon, Booktopia and Book Depository. It can also be bought from the following stores in Queensland: The Book Tree in Toowoomba; Dymocks in Queen Street, Brisbane CBD; [email protected] in Stones Corner, Brisbane, and The BookShop in Caloundra. It can be ordered by any bookshop anywhere.

Is your retirement, or your plan for retirement, causing any issues? Are you embracing the changes or resisting them, or are you somewhere in between?

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Written by Janelle Ward

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