Adrift and alone in retirement? Rebuild your identity, therapists say

There are rewarding new paths ahead.

  • By Morey Stettner,
  • MarketWatch
  • Living in Retirement
  • Living in Retirement
  • Living in Retirement
  • Living in Retirement
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All your working life, you dreamed of a carefree, joyous retirement. Now that you're retired, you're still waiting for the joy.

You imagined a world of constant leisure. But the reality for some retirees is less sanguine, as they feel adrift, purposeless and shaken to the core.

Sudden idleness can flummox individuals who've spent 40 years or more in a structured work environment. Shifting from a packed daily schedule to almost boundless freedom might seem alluring from afar, but prove jarring when it actually happens.

What's more, retirees may grieve the loss of their professional identity. The stature they gained from their job — from the authority that a senior executive wields to the admiration that a firefighter or teacher basks in — falls away in retirement.

As a result, retirees who are accustomed to feeling useful and wanted sometimes find themselves struggling to adjust. They may even see a psychologist to cope.

"It's a central theme in most of the work that I do," said George Kraus, a psychologist in Pleasant Hill, Calif. "Leaving a job is like having a spouse die if you identify deeply with it. Taking away what you've been doing for decades can create a big hole."

He views retirement as a developmental stage like adolescence or becoming a parent. Those who aced earlier phases of life are more apt to shift seamlessly into their golden years.

"If you've done well in the earlier stages, finding fulfilling relationships and making the right choices, that can influence how you'll make the transition" to retire, says Kraus, author of "At Wit's End."

Even people who don't necessarily love their work can feel sad or regretful about giving it up. They may thrive on the socialization, the busyness or their employer's sense of mission.

To grapple with what Kraus calls "a confusing morass of thoughts and feelings," retirees need to forge fresh connections to the world around them. Pursuing a longtime hobby or volunteering in the community can help you blaze a rewarding new path.

To combat isolation, ask yourself, "What are my passions?" Then set incremental goals for the coming year to indulge your passions, such as attending at least one lecture a month at a local university or joining a nonprofit board or committee.

If you're apprehensive or hesitant about diving into such activities, dig to determine what's stopping you. A therapist can help you work through emotional baggage; Kraus finds that some retirees must overcome social anxiety, fears about their health or the crushing sorrow flowing from the death of a loved one.

Gender can also play a role. Men may derive much of their self-worth from their profession, while women often carve out separate identities "as caregiver, parent or grandparent or as part of a well-developed social network," said Jennifer Ailshire, an assistant professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology in Los Angeles, Calif.

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She adds that because men tend to generate higher earnings — and how much money you make can define your professional identity — the shock of retirement from a richly compensated career can hit males harder.

"It's no longer understanding who you are," Ailshire said.

To rediscover who you are, she suggests volunteerism, returning to school or embracing an "encore career" that's driven by passion, not a paycheck. For example, a retired dentist can take watercolor classes and work part-time at an art gallery.

Men who are closely tied to their professional identity — and who still work full-time — can lay the groundwork for a more satisfying retirement by seeking out other roles before they call it quits. For instance, they can teach or mentor entrants to their field, coach youth sports, join a hiking club or practice ballroom dancing.

"We have more trouble getting older men to be more engaged socially," she said. "They need to develop other identities outside of work."

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