Embracing New Habits and Choices After Retirement
Assess your situation repeatedly, and adapt accordingly
Who are you when you leave your work identity behind? How do you create a new self in retirement? Even if you are counting the days until you can walk away from a job you dislike, when you do depart you will face a transition that often presents challenges.
Once out the door, you may need time to refine your path forward.
"Part of the issue is acknowledging the ways that decades of work have shaped our personalities," says Katherine King, an assistant professor of psychology at William James College in Newton, Massachusetts. As a geropsychologist, King, 43, specializes in mental health and aging and has a part-time private practice.
Work and Your Worldview
"The ways in which we showed up to our work life may be the way we relate to the world," King continues. "Maybe you've always been a perfectionist, or you think that taking it easy is self-indulgent. Or maybe you just can't wait to put your feet up — but after a month at home, you're bored. It helps to look with fresh eyes at either situation."
"Reflection before and after you stop working can be a nice period of growth."
Self-awareness is key, King notes. "Before you retire, make lists about what you're excited to let go of in the future," she says.
Maybe on the job you always had to be deferential, and you're looking forward to not having to relate to people so closely. Maybe you found time management exhausting, and you're looking forward to a looser schedule. Or maybe you like a lot of stimulation, and you want to stay busy now that your time is your own.
"Reflection before and after you stop working can be a nice period of growth," King says.
Avoid Quick Overcommitments
Last fall, the Rev. Dean McDonald, a Presbyterian minister in Chevy Chase, Maryland, eagerly accepted a temporary position as a "gap pastor," filling in while the congregation sought new leadership.
Originally, she was eager to resume serving in ministry, but now McDonald, 74, is ready for the assignment to end. "My last Sunday was February 19," she says, "and I am yearning to get back to full-time retirement."
Ordained 46 years ago, McDonald has served as a full-time pastor and also accepted temporary positions. In between these commitments, she has not had much success with down time.
Find a New Calling
"I've tried a lot of volunteer work, but nothing has quite panned out," she says. "This time, I'm looking to try something new — I've committed to take training to write letters to prisoners. I feel I live so well, and I would like to do something for people in tough situations," she says.
King, the professor in Massachusetts, has a suggestion. "Staying busy after retirement often feels fulfilling because you've chosen what you're doing, but it's important to track that as you move forward," she says.
"Check in with yourself from time to time," she recommends. "Ask 'Is this style of retirement working for me? What do I like about it? What feels good? Could I do something different?'"
King also counsels new retirees to not overcommit to any obligation. "Put in speed bumps so you can get out of it after six months if you need to," she says.
Make Time for Mindfulness
Sometimes, successful habits honed at work follow us home after retirement. Susan Leslie, 74, retired in 2017 after 40 years as head of a university hospital program in San Francisco. "Micromanaging served me well when I was working, but I'm still a control freak," she says. "I can't break the habit."
The autumn of 2022 was especially fraught. Leslie traveled frequently to be with her mother, who was in the hospital and later a rehabilitation center.
After her mother passed away in November, Leslie felt overwhelmed by all the paperwork. "Every time I got to the bottom of a pile or emptied my inbox, more paperwork arrived, and I wanted to get it all done right away," she says. "It was making me crazy."
Reviewing work habits that may not serve us in retirement is another good place for inquiry and self-reflection, King says.
"In retirement, we face a lot of freedom in how we spend our days," she says, "and what we bring to it may include a sense of over-responsibility, guilt, self-doubt, passion, love of learning and curiosity — all the best and worst of us."
For guidance, she recommends Jon Kabat-Zinn's book "Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life."
'Dancing . . . Created a New Career'
Russ Mountjoy, 60, knows where he's going now that he's retired: to ballroom dance classes. "If you had told me over three years ago that at this point I'd be taking classes and buying dance shoes and clothes, I would have told you that you were crazy, but now dancing is a big part of my life," he says. Mountjoy lives in a suburb of Minneapolis-Saint Paul.
"Dancing keeps my mind active. I am always learning."
Three female friends who worked with Mountjoy in the electric utility industry encouraged him to take a group salsa class with them in 2019. He went, and he liked it. "I've never really been coordinated, and I realized I needed private lessons," he says.
During the early days of the pandemic, Mountjoy signed up for virtual lessons. Since his retirement in July 2022, he's taken private and group lessons almost every day. He also attends dances and serves on the local board of USA Dance, the organizing body for competitive ballroom dancing in the United States and a promoter of social, recreational ballroom and Latin dancing in America.
Be Willing to Surprise Yourself
"I like the beauty of dance, and I like how much fun it is, all the social aspects," he says. "The people are very welcoming, regardless of your skill level. For me, dancing replaces the structure of a career I was happy with, and has created a new career, one where my worries and troubles disappear.
"Plus," he adds, "dancing keeps my mind active. I am always learning."
Serendipitously, Mountjoy followed another recommendation from King. "When you think about how you hope to use your time in retirement, bring your curiosity and be willing to surprise yourself," she says.
She has another tip to offer. "Retirement also requires honest self-assessment and self-awareness," she says. "We may not want to admit to getting older, but at some point, our bodies don't work the way they used to."
Be Wary of Missteps
As you step into your new role as a retiree, be careful not to misstep — and fall. On a stepladder washing a window in her home recently, a 75-year-old friend misjudged how high up she was and jammed her ankle, her knee and her hip when she stepped down.
"Good thing I had a walker in the closet," she says. "It took at least six weeks to recover."
"Retirement also requires honest self-assessment and self-awareness."
The Centers for Disease Control reports falls are the leading cause of injury and death in individuals 65 and older. "Every second of every day, an older adult suffers a fall in the U.S.," the agency notes.
Each year, "about 36 million falls are reported among older adults . . . and about 3 million older adults are treated in emergency departments for a fall injury."
(The National Institute on Aging offers advice on how to prevent falls and how to reduce the damage when falls occur.)
My friend has not stopped using her stepladder, but while she is standing on it, she continuously recites aloud which step she is standing on. "That's the only way I can guarantee I am thinking about it," she says.
Once again, mindfulness demonstrates its usefulness in aging.