When people leave the workforce permanently, they lose one of the most obvious ways to measure their place in society. In addition, they are faced with the decision of what to do with the rest of their life. People who retire often go from a routine that fills much of their day to one with much more free time.
Whether retirement is viewed as a positive or negative event often depends on the reasons for retiring. Some people choose to retire, having looked forward to quitting unpleasant work or to pursuing more fulfilling interests. Others are forced to retire because of employment circumstances, family issues, or poor health.
About one third of retirees have difficulty coping with the consequences of retirement. People who retire unexpectedly because of illness or job loss or who tended to work long hours and bring work home with them may be most likely to experience difficulty. Spouses may have to adjust to seeing more of one another. Some retirees have difficulty coping with a reduced income. Others resent their diminished role in society. They may believe that they are unimportant and powerless, with little left to contribute. Still others relish the time they now have to pursue their interests, to volunteer, and to enjoy friends and loved ones.
The transition from work to retirement can be eased through planning. Beginning to plan for retirement in advance is very helpful. Many employers offer retirement planning services, as do some community agencies. Retirement planning focuses on finding ways to meet financial needs and obligations and on identifying ways to fill available time through part-time employment, volunteer positions, leisure activities, or adoption of a pet. Counseling may help retirees and their families who experience difficulties.
Losing a Loved One
The death of a loved one can weigh heavily on the heart and mind of an older person. When a spouse or partner or a close family member or friend dies, people feel a strong sense of loss and are reminded of their own mortality. In addition to a loss of companionship, older people may interact less with family and friends and experience a decline in social standing.
The death of a spouse or partner is perhaps the most striking loss older people confront. In some cases, the surviving spouse or partner dies soon afterward, usually when the survivor is the husband rather than the wife. Parents experiencing the death of a child, even in old age, also face a particularly difficult loss.
Older people may be confronted with the death of several loved ones or friends within a brief period of time. Many deaths occurring close together can be particularly difficult to cope with, causing older people to feel especially lonely and isolated. Each death may revive feelings of sadness and grief related to earlier losses.
When people are grieving over the loss of a loved one or friend, sadness is usually apparent. Sadness, a natural response to death, is not the same as depression and therefore does not necessarily indicate a need for treatment. People experience grief and sadness differently, and they may express grief in different ways. Some people are very vocal about their feelings. Others are more private. Some people need more time alone, while others seek out the company of others to help them. Some older people who are grieving are helped by joining a support group or discussing their feelings with a clergy member or counselor.
Feelings of intense sadness over an extended period of time or signs of declining health may indicate depression (see Mood Disorders: Depression). If grief is prolonged or overwhelming, if people become unable or unwilling to carry out even essential daily activities, or if they speak of suicide, evaluation and treatment by a doctor are necessary. If the doctor diagnoses depression, people may be referred to a mental health practitioner. At times, antidepressant drugs may be helpful. Some older people prefer to be counseled by a clergy member. They may view such counseling as less stigmatizing than that by a mental health practitioner. However, many clergy members do not have extensive training in mental health counseling.
Some older people choose to remarry or live with a new partner after a divorce or the death of a spouse because they desire companionship or intimacy. However, when older people marry, they may have to consider situations that do not usually arise when people marry at younger ages. For example, adult children may oppose a marriage, feeling their parent may be taken advantage of, for example, to care for an ill partner or provide economic support. Other adult children may be concerned about who will inherit their parent's money or personal property.
Some older people may choose not to remarry because marriage restricts their access to benefits (such as survivor's benefits, including medical benefits) from a spouse's pension or social security. Others may be concerned about taking on the role of caregiver.
Older people should ensure that they understand how remarriage will affect their benefits and finances. They may need to consult an attorney before the marriage. Open discussion of the changes in family and lifestyle may minimize conflicts after the marriage.
Changes in Living Arrangements
Living alone is a common situation for many older people and can present many challenges.
Despite these challenges and problems, most older people who live alone express a keen desire to maintain their independence. Many fear being overly dependent on others and wish to continue to live alone despite the challenges they face. Engaging in regular physical and mental activities and staying connected with others help older people who are living alone maintain their independence.
People returning home from a hospital stay, particularly after surgery, may benefit from having a discussion with a social worker or health care practitioner about any extra services that will be needed. Such services, which may include home health aides or visiting nurses, can help ensure that people resume living independently.
Alternative living arrangements may be an option when living alone is not. In some instances, someone may be willing to move into the dwelling of an increasingly dependent older person. That someone is most often an adult child, but it may be another family member or even a friend. The person moving in may provide companionship only or may undertake some caregiving responsibilities. This type of living arrangement may extend the time older people are able to remain in their own home and may be quite satisfying to all involved. However, expectations of each person regarding the arrangement should be clearly expressed and agreed on.
Relocation, or moving to another residence, sometimes becomes an attractive option or even a necessity for older people after retirement or the death of a spouse or relative. Older people may move when declining health uncovers a need for supervision or help with personal care. Alternatively, a decision to relocate may be made simply because older people are looking for better weather, more companionship, a greater sense of safety and security, or closer proximity to a family member. In other instances, older people relocate to reduce costs or to establish a simpler lifestyle. Usually the move is from a larger to a smaller dwelling. For example, older people may move from a family home to retirement housing and eventually to an assisted living community or nursing home.
People who respond poorly to relocation are more likely to have been living alone, socially isolated, impoverished, and depressed. Men respond more poorly than women do. Relocation can be very stressful. Much of the stress seems to arise when people feel they lack control over the move and do not know what to expect in the new environment. For older people who have memory loss, a move away from familiar surroundings may intensify confusion and dependence on others and lead to frustration.
Sometimes relocation involves moving into someone else's home. Older people may move into the home of an adult child. Less often, people move into the home of a sibling, another relative, or a friend. Even when older people have been independent or nearly so, choosing to live with another person can produce mixed results. Problems may develop if older people believe they are or might become a burden to others in the household. In some instances, not everyone in the household is pleased to have the older person move in. This situation may arise when adult children ask their parents to live with them out of a sense of guilt or obligation. An older person moving into the home of a relative may be vulnerable to mistreatment (see see Elder Mistreatment) or other problems if others in the household feel angry and frustrated with the arrangement.
On the other hand, relocation may lead to a very positive arrangement in which people provide services to one another as well as companionship and financial relief. Such relocations are most likely to go well when the older person is well prepared and when discussion regarding expectations and concerns is open and ongoing.
Many moves happen suddenly, but even a little preparation can help decrease the stress of relocating. Before a decision is made for an older person to move into someone else's home, every person already living in that home should have an opportunity to participate in a discussion about what to expect and how to handle problems. This type of discussion can help everyone involved to anticipate and possibly prevent conflicts. People who are moving should be acquainted with the new setting well in advance, if possible. The opportunity to tour future surroundings and meet potential neighbors can be very helpful.
Once a move has occurred, several actions help make the move successful. Older people should maintain or increase their level of physical activity to support good health. Getting involved in social activities in the new environment helps alleviate the stress of the move. Friends and family can help by being supportive and encouraging involvement in activities.
Last full review/revision December 2008 by Terrie Fox Wetle, MS, PhD