Coping with Retirement

Dear Alistair, My husband finally retired two months ago. Initially he tried to keep busy around the house with the odd jobs that needed seeing to, but now he spends a lot of time in front of the TV. He often seems quite down and appears to need some direction!? What can I do to help him?

The situation that you and your husband find yourselves in is, unfortunately, a very common one. Although I do not know what your husband’s profession was, it sounds as though he delayed his retirement for as long as he possibly could. And, not only does he not know how to fill his days with activities he enjoys but he is also likely to be struggling with a number of other difficulties described below.

Firstly, the transition to retirement is primarily about change and loss: of routines, of work and the stimulation it offers; of income and the needs it can meet; of friends and colleagues; and of part of one’s identity. It will be very important for you and your husband to acknowledge these losses and for him to grieve or mourn them. For him to psychologically come to terms with these losses involves a process that usually takes a few weeks, but occasionally longer, and is often characterised by a sense of doubt, sadness and general discomfort. Helping your husband to talk about his unhappiness and distress will go a long way in assisting him through this difficult time.

Linked to the above, is our basic need for a sense of constancy. This need will be met to a greater extent as your husband becomes familiar with his new routines. Until this time, however, he is likely to need a lot of emotional support from you, his family and his friends.

Many retirees who experience retirement as a generally negative and stressful experience would have chosen to continue working until they could no longer physically manage it, not only in order to ensure a more comfortable retirement, but also to provide themselves with some meaning to life. It sounds as though this could well be true for your husband, who it appears has lost much of his sense of purpose. If this is the case, then you might like to support him in exploring the options that are available ‘to make a difference’ within your local community. Your husband might find that the skills and abilities he developed during his working years may be useful in other settings, such as within a non-governmental organisation for example.

It is true to say that although 50 years ago it was appropriate to consider a 65-year-old as ‘old’, today that term would apply only to a person who is nearly 80. If your husband is to join those retirees who find retirement a pleasant and happy experience, a time to enjoy a bit of travelling, learn new skills, and rediscover friends and family it will be crucial for him to put time and effort into overcoming the challenges mentioned above.