Later Life Transitions: Retirement

On May 19, 2023, the Aging Issues Committee began a series of six luncheon series presentations on Later Life Transitions. David DiCicco, Ph.D. led the first discussion that explored challenges to retirement including internal and external barriers to the process. The essay below aims to summarize the discussion with some theoretical material from the works of Erik Erikson and George Valliant.

Most psychologists are familiar with Erikson’s stages of adult development and they form the backdrop for understanding the aging process. Those stages are psychosocial identity, the capacity for intimacy, career consolidation, and generativity.

Our group discussed planning for retirement. Some planning is possible, though new interests and activities may develop post-retirement. I knew I wanted to play golf and ski, but I had no idea I would write mystery stories daily. It is crucial to be open to and pursue new interests if passion exists. Julian Meltzoff became a respected sculptor after he retired. Lessons are available for almost any interest.

From a practical point of view, several tasks go into closing a practice. Patients need to be given ample time to process termination. Six months might be enough time to work through termination. A practitioner must arrange for the storage of records, notification to insurance companies, and arrange for ongoing malpractice coverage. Referrals, when requested, need to be arranged.

Financial security, not surprisingly, was a concern for attendees. Financial advisers can predict how long your savings will last at current interest rates if you take out so much monthly. One participant pointed out that the stock market fluctuates, so there is limited security. He pointed out that you will always have financial insecurity unless you are wealthy. Should you live the life of a frugal monk in retirement? No. Should you spend lavishly with no worry? Of course not!

Another participant raised the issue of finding meaning and purpose in retirement. How does one establish a meaningful retirement after doing vital, purposeful work for thirty or forty years? This issue is a key one and relevant for everyone. Someone pointed out that retirement is a process of letting go and rebuilding. Is it sad to stop helping others and give up work in which you developed competency? Of course.

After letting go and processing grief, the retiree is tasked with designing a new program that ends with a further self-definition. One individual will continue to be a traveler and bird watcher, but may add other activities to a schedule that is now more open. With new freedom comes responsibility for developing a life that hopefully offers opportunities for creativity, play, and connectedness with others. A quilting group is an excellent example of an activity that provides social interactions, creativity, and self-satisfaction. In former times in rural environments, quilting bees were how women shared the community news and socialized.

One problem for psychologists and professionals in other disciplines is that few rituals demarcate the transition from worker to retired person. At other transitional points in our culture, some rituals help a person move into a new phase of life. Students have graduation ceremonies; teens have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and military people have parades. Students throw hats, doctors don white coats, and so it goes. When I retired, I left my office on the last day and shut the door. It seemed surreal!

What are the barriers to a successful retirement? Some might be poor health, illness in a spouse or family member, a natural disaster, social isolation, and a lack of meaningful activities that promote the growth and development of an expanded identity. For example, a retired psychologist might paint, volunteer, surf, travel, or learn an instrument. 

Adults need to manage their feelings adaptively. Internal barriers might be immature defenses and ineffective coping strategies. Immature defenses like denial, fantasy, projection, and acting out work against successful functioning and make it harder to manage any phase of life.

Adaptive defenses like humor, altruism, sublimation, anticipation, and suppression facilitate adjustment and have a good prognosis for sailing through the waters of retirement. Adaptive people keep their emotions in check when necessary and manage difficult situations with grace and patience. They channel their feelings in socially constructive ways. When one participant’s husband could no longer rock climb, he built a climbing wall in his garage and taught his grandchildren to climb. Altruism helped him mitigate the loss of a sport he loved. John Kennedy enjoyed reading Ian Fleming’s books featuring James Bond. His identification with Bond may have enabled him to curb some of his recklessness through the defense of sublimation.

I once worked at a Mental Health facility where the staff at a meeting voiced strong negative opinions about the food. After listening carefully to the discussion, the Superintendent, a highly skilled man, said at the meeting’s conclusion, “Well, shall we break for lunch?” His use of humor helped diffuse a tense situation.

Several people in the workshop voiced concerns about health in their senior years. People discussed staying fit and having good health insurance. Travel insurance is essential to consider when on a trip. I have known several people who developed health conditions or were injured in Europe. Their insurance saved them thousands of dollars. Following a recent ski accident, a medical helicopter took me from Aspen to Denver two years ago. The 40-minute ride was 53,000 dollars, but my insurance covered the cost. 

Several people talked about liking adventure sports but feared injury. One person mentioned that she won’t ski again because of the fear of injury. But she will scuba dive, a love of hers, and she is willing to take that risk. 

In his longitudinal studies, George Valliant found certain variables correlated with good health in the senior years. He found that the healthy aging might have had medical problems but didn’t feel sick. They worked around their conditions (pervasive diseases like ALS, cancer, dementia, and M.S. excluded). Key variables were non-smoking, moderate use of alcohol, a stable marriage, non-obesity, exercise, and mature defenses (sublimation, humor, altruism, suppression, and anticipation).

What happens when a spouse becomes ill or disabled? People will bring their coping strategies to bear at such times. My friend’s wife can’t remember and keeps making the same point. He suppresses his frustration. He uses anticipation to think ahead about how to manage specific outings. His altruism helps him cope.

The final stages Eric Erikson and George Valliant described are Keepers of the meaning and integrity. So, what do these terms mean? Keeper of the meaning describes a role that older people play. These people can look back over the terrain of life and see trends, patterns, and flow. Others seek them out. Examples might be Attorneys of Counsel, Professors Emeritus, and Past Presidents of SDPA. Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu might be Keepers of the Meaning. On a local level, deceased psychologists Sydney Smith and Tom McGee might fall into this category.

Integrity is the final stage described by Erik Erikson. This is an interesting concept representing a time of acceptance of one’s point of arrival in life. Were there other paths that could have been taken? Yes. Might there be some regrets? Yes. It is perhaps like looking from above at ways taken and not. The picture of the paths taken is clear. One sees and accepts their map.

Throughout these pages, I have discussed the work of George Valliant. Two of his books that I recommend are Adaptation to Life and Aging Well. Both are available through Amazon. Both books discuss findings from longitudinal studies, which Dr. Valliant joined early in his psychiatric career. I would also recommend a TED talk given by Professor Valliant in November 2014. It is available on YouTube.

Please email me with any comments or questions. You can count on a response.