20 tips for a happy retirement. #3 Prepare for ups and downs – Covid -19 Edition

Retirement can be a merry-go-round.

If I’d known what was coming with this Coronavirus pandemic I would have had a different perspective on things, however I guess that’s the point – we didn’t see the runaway truck hurtling down the hill until it’s too late. However with some peripheral vision, care and forethought we might avoid some of life’s ups and downs or at least be in a position to mitigate them should the brakes fail! So think tuning up your life so as to be as future proof as reasonably possible!

Having decided to write on the subject of the ‘Ups and Downs’ of retirement I shouldn’t have been surprised that my internet search concentrated on the financials and not the person. The first ‘relevant’ site I visited was Hallmark Cards and the card featured at the top of this article. Inside it suggests that ‘You can get UP whenever you want to and lie DOWN whenever you feel like it!’ another asks ‘Know the secret of happy retirement?’ – ‘Don’t go to work!’

Now I think these are great and likely written by someone in work looking forward to rather than in retirement. I’ll get one of these for the next retirement party giver, but later maybe ‘sign post’ them to this and other articles and hope they have prepared for the Ups & Downs, because as you may be surprised to learn – ‘It’s not as simple as that!’

 A survey of some of the first baby boomers to reach retirement revealed that while most are content with their decision to leave the workplace, many found the transition to retirement to be emotionally challenging. The study highlights the importance of preparing emotionally for retirement as this often gets overshadowed by the multitude of financial decisions that need to be made. To secure a happy retirement and TOYL emotional and financial preparation should go hand-in-hand.

We can all think of work stresses many of which will end with retirement such as the daily commute. However we often forget about the positives even in a job we ‘hate’! Take a look at Work – What is it good for? If you need reminding! Adjusting to TOYL may prove more difficult than first anticipated. However on a positive note most TOYLers DO actually find that retirement is a positive experience but that it doesn’t always work out as planned which can be exciting too if you relish a challenge. Finances are however the subject of much of the angst in retirement, the not knowing and the inability to easily make good if things take a down turn. This is however the domain of others and here we will concentrate on the emotional challenges. (Physical and Health are dealt with elsewhere.) There may be times when you feel lonely or a bit lost or even bored which is normal. If ill health or changes in your relationships temporarily scupper your plans, accept that this has happened and get your back-up plan in action. Think positively and share any concerns with others, relationships with friends and family are key to happiness (We can’t do anything about our genetics and little about our upbringing!) in general and more so in retirement when you may find yourself rather more socially isolated having withdrawn from relationships at work, moved away (see 9. Seek social support Think twice before relocating) from your community and social circle etc. We have often spent decades building up a circle of connections and retirement can break this apart if we are not careful. Starting again from scratch and breaking into established friendship groups can be difficult so searching out opportunities before making the leap might be a good idea.

Psychologists refer to retirement as a “major life transition”. As such, it’s regarded as a stressor with risk and benefit.

In the inaugural issue of the journal Work, Aging and Retirement, published in 2015, Cornell University psychologist Peter Bamberger reviewed existing research on alcohol and other drug abuse among retirees and concluded that while the two are linked, retirement per se is not the cause. Rather, concerns about money and marital strains were associated with sleep difficulties and with alcohol abuse among men both of which have a profound effect on our mental health. The study shows that those who had been ‘pushed’ into retirement through redundancy etc. were most at risk. “The worst combination was among people who took early retirement from jobs they loved because they were terrified their companies were going under,” he says. “Among all groups studied, this one exhibited the highest incidence of substance abuse.”

In 2017 a Finnish team of researchers published their results on alcohol consumption among this group. At the time of retirement, one in eight developed “risky” levels of drinking (defined in this case as more than 24 units per week for men or 16 for women, or passing out due to extreme alcohol consumption). Male gender, smoking, being depressed (Which can be caused by alcohol despite the common belief that it can ‘buck one up’ – possibly true in the short term but low mood will often be the long term consequence of excess alcohol consumption)  and working in a metropolitan area are associated with increased likelihood of increased alcohol consumption. However as the participants settled into retirement, there was fortunately a gradual decline in risky drinking although some remained stuck in their ways. Swapping a ‘pub measure’ after work can easily translate into a ‘home measure’ G&T or a larger glass of wine with dinner. The dangers of excess alcohol to general health are well known but as we age this will also contribute to a higher incidence of falls, risk of hip fracture and mortality.

Finnish retirees have been shown to sleep better (20 minutes longer with better sleep quality) with less early morning awakenings or nonrestorative sleep, unlike in their last working years and since depression often causes people to wake early in the morning this may suggest less stress and depression which is strongly linked to disruptions to circadian rhythms, which regulate our daily cycles of sleep and wakefulness. Studies also show retirees also sit for longer, on average an hour and a quarter – of which 30mins was extra TV viewing – whether this was educational, mind expanding or trashy daytime dross TV wasn’t explored! These are is hardly radical insights but waking better refreshed will have general health and wellbeing benefits but more time spent sitting is linked to poorer health.

However researchers in Australia where the climate differs dramatically from that in Finland found a somewhat different picture. Retirement was associated significantly with reduced odds of smoking, physical inactivity and excessive sitting but there they found no significant association between retirement and alcohol use. They did concur with the sleep benefits however. Change in the total number of lifestyle risk factors differed significantly by reason for retirement. “Our research revealed that retirement was associated with positive lifestyle changes,” said lead researcher, Melody Ding, at the University of Sydney.

Retirement can be viewed as a great window of opportunity to get out of harmful health patterns and into beneficial ones but it may depend on the weather!

A Californian study which may well be weather related too, of men and women around retirement age found that most people who were strongly engaged in various domains of life – with their romantic partners, children, their health, the welfare of others, their finances and work, maintained the same profile after retiring. Further the people who reported high levels of engagement in many (rather than few) spheres of life before and after retirement showed a better psychological adjustment to this shift. They had higher levels of perceived control in their lives (linked to a reduced risk of depression) and reported experiencing greater well-being.

The main message from this work seems to be, yes, you may be leaving a long-term, and even a beloved, career on retiring; but that gives you more time to invest in family and physical exercise, for example, as well as other kinds of work. Maintaining all these investments of energy and time, or even increasing them, seems to be key to a psychologically successful transition.

“A major life change like retirement creates a great window of opportunity to make positive lifestyle changes – it’s a chance to get rid of bad routines and engineer new, healthier behaviours.” Melody Ding.

So in the words of Benjamin Franklin: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail and Oscar Wilde” To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect” one might plan but also look forward to the future Ups and Downs retirement and TOYL may hold for us!


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