To work or not to work? That is the question that confronts us at the end of our principal work years. Those years, dedicated to earning a living, fulfilling talents and interests, supporting family and saving for the future, pass quickly and, in a flash, retirement is on the horizon.
I remember when child-raising was my "career," and later, when the responsibilities of a social worker consumed my day. Each morning, when the wake-up alarm sounded, whether a child's cry or an electric buzzer, I thought: "Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning!"--to which I added my own rhyming line: "And when I retire, I'll never view another dawning!" Poor poetry, but a tantalizing idea.
I retired . . . and continued to meet the day at 5 a.m. It was shocking and disappointing. My schedule did not change, retirement did not reset my personal clock. Internally, I was the same, but externally I was faced with a multitude of lifestyle changes. For these, I was not prepared.
Some of you have shared with me your similar experiences. We carefully planned the financial aspects of retirement, but when it came to the inevitable changes in our lifestyle, we just let them happen. No plans, just fantasies.
Dr. Lidia Everett, an internist-gerontology specialist in San Marcos, has observed that couples who are unhappy with one another during working years do not often find that the freedom of retirement brings them joy. Folks who are used to making decisions alone do not suddenly relish a conference with a spouse. The woman of today's "Shades of Gray" generation, accustomed to being alone during the day and making her own decisions, does not always rejoice when she is suddenly faced with a daily, all-day companion.
When psychologists talk to one another, they discuss the "baggage" that people carry with them: lifelong habits, fears, likes and dislikes. These contribute to the emotional responses that direct our actions and our attitudes; they are what make us, us. "People carry their long-established habits into retirement . . . not always the best," said Everett.
There are men who, during decades of work, came home daily to tender loving care, a smiling welcome accompanied by pipe, slippers and a ready cold drink. Now in retirement, they find that this ritual has switched to self-service. They feel abandoned and betrayed, disappointed that the time and attention they received at the end of a workday are no longer offered. There are women, on the other hand, who feel imposed upon. Home is their decision-making domain and now they must suffer another opinion. Their autonomy is threatened.
The transition from the busyness of parenting and work to the freedom of the golden years is not always smooth and bright. According to Everett, there is a variety of reponses to this momentous change. There are women who continue to work or find jobs when their husbands retire. In fact, some women who never worked outside the home decide to try it at the very moment that their spouse decides to stay home.
Unfortunately, there are some who respond to retirement by becoming depressed, anxious, chronically fatigued, ill, even alcoholic. Many times those conditions can be traced to the stress of change, too much togetherness or empty time, and the loss of friends when people move from familiar surroundings into new communities.
These men and women need to confront their stress and frustration. Frequently, finding a listening ear is sufficient help. Instead of struggling with full-time togetherness, couples can be taught to give each other space, allowing for time apart. Just as newlywed couples have to make a determined effort to establish their own separateness after the honeymoon, so do retirees have to establish new guidelines for personal freedom.
In our house, once breakfast is finished, my husband and I separate and usually do not spend time together again until we join for lunch. We share almost all of our afternoons and our evenings, but mornings are sacrosanct: hours when each of us works separately. We did not plan to retire this way. Like so many others, we did not plan beyond finances. Someone suggested that private time was important. We tried it and found that it works for us.
The young and we, the not-so-young, can benefit from sharing the experiences of others and discussing cures for irritations and annoyances.