My work life is over. What's next?

Some retirees find themselves without a plan as they look for a new sense of purpose.

  • By Kerry Hannon,
  • The New York Times News Service
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When Jeff Hutchinson, 65, retired two years ago after four decades with Dominion Energy in Richmond, Va., he took a gap year to figure out what he wanted to do.

“I was emotionally ready to go,” said Mr. Hutchinson, who has adjusted well to life after work.

His days are full, getting together with former co-workers for lunch and tackling the pile of “when I retire projects” stored in his garage over the years.

And he enjoys helping around the barn with the half-dozen horses he and his wife, Mary Beth Donnelly, tend to, along with keeping the fields and fencing of their 56-acre Beaverdam, Va., farm in shape.

Mr. Hutchinson knows he’s lucky to have a lot on his plate. “I tell my friends, don’t let retirement scare you. So many people are so worried that they’re not going to have anything to do. You need to plan a little.”

Isolation and loneliness can emerge. “All too often the shift to retirement is viewed narrowly as a vocational one, a move from working to not working,” said Marc Freedman, who leads, a nonprofit group that aims to tap the skills and experience of people in midlife and beyond.

“Yet something much deeper and more fundamental is underway,” he said. “It can be an uncertain, scary time.”

And traversing the emotional realities can be a solitary journey. “All too often, individuals are left to their own devices when it comes to finding a new sense of purpose in a post-retirement period that could be as long as the middle years in duration,” said Mr. Freedman, author of “How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations.” “Many feel like they are all alone in navigating the new terrain, practically and emotionally.”

Add in the underlying awareness for many that there are fewer days ahead than behind, and this emotional shift becomes even more weighted, he added. “Time is more precious. Questions of purpose and legacy are more prominent. That can sound depressing, but for many people it is a powerful source of motivation for making the most of this period.”

The human connection

Part of the fear stems from a loss of identity when people no longer work, according to Dorian Mintzer, a retirement transition coach. “Often people don’t recognize the role that work has played in their life — the structure it provided, the reason to get up in the morning, self-esteem, community, camaraderie. That’s the emotional piece that catches people unaware,” she said.

Compounding that can be pressure to feel happy. “Some people aren’t prepared that there is some grieving to do, and that’s why they’re feeling sad and depressed when, hey, this is supposed to be the best time of their life,” Ms. Mintzer said.

It took a few years for Phyllis Rhoton, 73, who hired Ms. Mintzer, to realize something was missing. Ten years ago, because of a health issue, she retired without much of a plan from her job as a customer service agent at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

“For the first couple of years, I took care of myself. I did a lot of things I couldn’t do when I was working. I traveled and visited friends and family. My mother was ill, and I spent a lot of time taking care of her. Then everyone started dying — my aunt, my brother, my mother. My family was dwindling away,” said Ms. Rhoton, who is single and has no children.

“That’s part of aging, but I felt like there was a vacuum. I was just sitting around watching Netflix all the time, and that’s not real.”

Working with Ms. Mintzer helped her realize that she missed the human connection. So Ms. Rhoton, who lives in Medford, Mass., enrolled in courses at adult education centers. She has studied Vietnamese cooking, public speaking and how to teach English as a second language, and continues to sign up for new courses. “I meet new people, and my mind has become engaged again,” she said. “It’s fun.”

She also started volunteering, initially serving meals at a veterans’ shelter. “That got me out of my funk,” she said. “You’re working with a whole bunch of volunteers on projects so you see these people on an ongoing basis, and you feel like you are a part of something.”

Now she tutors people learning to speak English. “I’m both student and teacher at the same time,” she said. “I learn so much from them about their culture and customs and experiences here in this country.”

Adjusting to change

Retiring is a sequence of shifts over time, as Ms. Rhoton has found. Three substantial changes take place, said Ken Dychtwald, founder and chief executive of Age Wave, a consulting and research company.

“For most of the changes in our lives there is ritual,” he said. “In high school, when you contemplated college, you go visit campuses. There’s counseling. When it comes to retirement, people are basically told ‘good luck, have a good time.’”

The first big change is identity. “Whether we realize it or not, we have our identity linked to our work, and the way we describe ourselves, how we introduce ourselves, and what we might say if we are sitting next to someone on a train. Our identity has been forged and tweaked and shaped by our work life.”

In addition, relationships change. “When we asked retirees in a study, conducted by Merrill Lynch in partnership with Age Wave, what do you miss the most, way at the top of the list was the relationships,” Mr. Dychtwald said. “They didn’t realize how much they would miss the person whose desk was next to theirs, or whose office, and asking about their kids and all of those things.”

The third shift is activity. “Most of us, until our retirement day, have lived our lives in a structured lifestyle,” he said. “You retire, and all of that is dissolved. For some people, that’s a kind of terror. They feel that they are in a state of free-fall. Others see it as freedom.”

So often, Mr. Dychtwald said, the focus is on finances. But, he added, “I think it’s really a psychological metamorphosis. During this transitional period, some people still feel unsettled, anxious or bored, but eventually they realize that ‘I can be fresh. I can be new.’”

Getting involved

Three years ago, Lester Strong, then 67, retired from a large nonprofit in Washington, where his work focused on older adults tutoring and mentoring elementary school children. “I was feeling stale,” Mr. Strong said. “I wasn’t growing and developing, so I decided it was time to retire. I didn’t know if I was going to be sitting around the house in my slippers, but I knew I needed to keep searching.”

What he didn’t expect, he said, was the period of wandering around that followed, as he tried to sort out what he wanted to do. Then Mr. Strong and his wife, Patrice, went to a police community forum in Kingston, N.Y., where they now live.

There had been an incident in the city involving the use of force by police against a black man and the community was upset. The police were trying to explain what was going on, and people were talking past each other, recalled Mr. Strong. “I thought maybe there is something I can do here with my past experience and as an African-American.”

He decided to get involved. “I wanted to give back in a more hands-on way. I felt in my heart of hearts that I was a teacher. I had even majored in education in college, but had never pursued it.”

In January, he started a pilot program, The Peaceful Guardians Project. The initiative links Kingston City School District middle-school students with the Kingston Police Department to bridge the gap between local youth and law enforcement. Police officers and young people form teams and work on activities that foster understanding, empathy and trust. The goal is to learn to see a situation through other eyes.

“I still don’t know exactly where I’m going, or what it will be like, but I’ve started,” Mr. Strong said. “I have something to say, something to offer, and this is something I can do that will bring me the enthusiasm.”

For now, Mr. Strong has decided that his job is to pay attention and keep asking ‘how can I help?, how can I help make things better?’ “I get up every morning to do something new and make a difference,” he said.

Switching gears to retirement

Here are 10 tips for navigating the emotional aspects of retirement.

Soul search. Do a self-assessment that examines your values and strengths, and pinpoint goals, hopes and dreams. List the things you have not had time for, things you like to do, events you would like to attend, places you would like to visit. What are your skills and how might you want to use them?

Build a basket of activities. These can include volunteering, part-time work, philanthropic efforts, entrepreneurial quests and artistic pastimes. Join or start an activity group, for example, one that takes regular dog walks, hikes or bike rides. If you’re politically inclined, get involved. Join a book group. The payoff: You get out of your head and into the world to meet new people.

Pursue lifelong learning. There are a growing number of educational outlets for adults such as Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, community colleges and adult education centers. Sign up for a lecture series. When you begin to learn new things, your mind shifts. It’s energized.

Reconnect with an old passion. Was there a hobby or sport that you loved as a child but had to set aside? This is a time to circle back to it. Perhaps it was sewing, bowling, riding horses, or photography. Give yourself permission to be in love with it again.

Work with younger generations. The real fountain of youth is the fountain with youth, according to Marc Freedman, founder of Find ways to connect with younger generations through mentoring, tutoring or coaching.

Develop a curious list. “Write a list of 20 or 30 things you are curious about and put it on the fridge,” recommends Robert Laura, a retirement coach and founder of the Retirement Coaches Association, “When you’re curious, it fosters motivation.”

Consider who you want in your life. Build a cadre of positive and energetic people. And ask yourself — would someone put you on their list?

Get physically fit. An exercise regimen of some type and eating with an eye to nutrition will help you live a healthier life and can provide a mental and psychic boost.

Find a path to inner balance. A mindfulness practice, meditation, yoga and tai chi, for example, can provide a source of inner balance and calm to help you navigate what can be a stressful life passage.

Have an open mind. This is a fresh trail. People get hooked on schedules and going, going, going. Give yourself the quiet time to allow creativity and unexpected ideas to bubble up.

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