Even the best retirement plans can go awry, so it is prudent to prepare to pivot if necessary
After years of working as a registered nurse, I had planned to spend my retirement working on my second career as a writer and helping my daughter when her third child arrived. I had everything planned in sequential order.
I also was considering volunteer opportunities in my church and community organizations, planning to reconnect with friends I hadn't seen in years and preparing to help my aging parents as they began to have health challenges.
Then the unexpected happened. One month before I was to retire, I woke up with excruciating pain in my lower back, radiating down my left leg. The pain was debilitating. A CT scan showed I had a herniated lumbar disc. How did my body deceive me?
So, what happens when you finally reach your landmark retirement date and your well-laid plans are wrecked by an unthinkable event?
I thought I was in fairly good health, but didn't account for my vertebral discs silently deteriorating. The pain left me physically incapacitated for weeks and facing possibly months of recovery or surgical repair in my future. As a result, I had to change my well-thought-out plans.
Charting a New Course
So, what happens when you finally reach your landmark retirement date and your well-laid plans are wrecked by an unthinkable event — you have a health crisis, your partner wants a divorce, you lose your house or have a significant death in your family? How do you pivot in a new direction?
Many people prepare financially for decades before they retire. Investing in your 401(k) and lining up your workplace pension may give you a sense of security that you will be able to spend your retirement years in relative comfort. People nearing retirement tend to do less to prepare physically, mentally and spiritually for nonfinancial surprises that can upend retirement plans.
Momentous life events can lead to significant loss, shock and disbelief. You can't make sense of what is happening. A period of grieving follows. Eventually, you need to face the reality of what happened, express your suffering and find a way to have hope and meaning in life again.
This will help you find a new direction and purpose.
When a life-altering event first occurs, you may lash out and fight the change. However, there may be issues over which you have no control. My health issue was not my fault or anyone else's. Losing a partner through death or divorce likely had many factors outside your control.
The anxiety you feel will expend the valuable energy you need to focus on things you may be able to change. Facing and accepting what has happened to you will give you power over your emotions.
"Grief is not a problem to be solved, not a condition to be medicated, but a deep encounter with an essential experience of being human."
Resist the urge to bury your feelings. While tucking away emotions may seem like an excellent method to cope with the crisis, it will only have adverse effects later. In her book "The Gifts of Imperfection," the author and speaker Brené Brown notes that suppressing painful emotions also numbs positive emotions. Acknowledging and identifying your feelings will reduce anxiety and help you deal with life more effectively.
A significant loss in your life can change the direction of your retirement plans. You need to grieve the loss, which will help you move through the pain toward effective healing. Francis Weller, in his book "The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief," writes, "Grief is not a problem to be solved, not a condition to be medicated, but a deep encounter with an essential experience of being human."
If we don't properly deal with the emotions connected to our grief, our bodies respond negatively, raising the risk of depression, addictions and physical illness. Life transitions are difficult, and they are easier to navigate if you have a supportive network of family, friends and health care providers.
There's no timeline for processing your grief. However, it's OK to seek support. Begin by contacting your health care provider to discuss your concerns. You may need a referral to a counselor or other mental health professional who can guide you through challenges and provide the tools to help you cope.
Holding on to Hope
"Things happen for a reason" seems like a platitude and is not always helpful in a crisis, but the idea can help you to start healing. Finding meaning in your circumstances is complex and not usually something you can do in the moment. However, effectively grieving your situation should lead you to this stage.
While it was almost "forced" upon me to rethink my priorities, I can now say I am thankful for the wake-up call.
You may have learned valuable life lessons and found meaning in your hardship. But first, you know how to prioritize what truly matters. For example, my adversity meant I had to cancel plans instead of rushing into multiple activities in my retirement. Instead, my priority was to look after my physical and mental health and well-being. While it was almost "forced" upon me to rethink my priorities, I can now say I am thankful for the wake-up call.
Practicing gratitude is essential to discovering meaning in a difficult situation. Having a gratitude journal to document what brings you even a small measure of joy will focus your mind and heart in a positive direction.
Fostering and maintaining social connections is especially important now. Studies have shown that older adults are healthier when they maintain social relationships. Start by taking the time to call a friend.
While building resiliency should be a lifelong pursuit, it is never too late to begin. Nurturing the three aspects of our whole selves — body, mind and spirit — can build resiliency we can rely on when adversity strikes. Note that it's not "if" but "when" trouble strikes, as none of us are immune from suffering.
Caring for your body, mind and spirit will help you to prepare to face difficult situations now and in the future. Some ideas include:
- Eat a healthy diet with more leafy green vegetables, less red meat and increased whole grains and fruit. Avoid fast or processed foods.
- Reduce or eliminate alcohol and caffeine.
- Increase physical activity. Start with 30 minutes three times a week. Join or start a walking group in your community. Consult your primary care doctor before beginning any new exercise routine.
- Improve sleep quality. Optimally, sleep 7 to 8 hours a night.
- Learn a new skill to stretch your mind. I learned to play piano at age 58.
- Practice, gratitude, mindfulness, prayer or meditation.
- Join a health club, community organization or faith group to foster relationships.
- Help others by volunteering in your community.
Experiencing a significant event in your life that alters your retirement plans can be a challenging journey. It's necessary to recognize that you are going through a loss and allow yourself to grieve so you can move forward to the future.
Practicing healthy life habits to help you develop resiliency can begin today. This will make you better equipped to pivot plans and deal with transitions you were not expecting.