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The Road to Retirement (Part One)

A new review article discusses how older adults can stay involved after retiring

Retirement is an issue that everybody worries about when they get older.

We're regularly bombarded with advice about financial security and the need for a diversified portfolio of securities to meet whatever health costs will arise in future.   With the prospect of longer and healthier lives, it's hardly surprising that outliving our money has become a major worry for many people.   In the 2015 White House Conference on Aging, retirement security was one of the most common themes raised among concerns of older Americans. 

But there is more to retirement planning than building up a nest egg. For that matter, there are other kinds of security than what financial planners tell you about.   According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, all humans have an innate need to belong and to remain a contributing member of society.  Can this sense of belonging remain even after we have stopped working?  And how well-prepared are many older adults at the prospect of coming home from the office for the last time?

A new review article published in the journal American Psychologist explores what retirement really means for many people and why retirement planners shouldn't focus on money alone. Written by Jacquelyn Boone James and Christa Matz-Costa at Boston College and Michael A. Smyer at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, the article examines many of the barriers faced by older adults, particularly when it comes to having their lives "matter" as it did when they were younger.

According to Boone James, Matz-Costa, and Michael A. Smyer,  psychological security, defined as the need to "stay engaged, contribute to society, and feel a sense of belonging in later life" is something that is frequently overlooked in the frequent public discussions and concerns raised about retirement planning.  But it can be just as essential as financial security when it comes to preventing the isolation and depression that retirees often experience.  

Part of the problem is that we are living longer than ever before.   According to recent statistics, people reaching the age of 65 can expect to live an additional 19.3 years (20.5 for females, 17.9 for males). The death rate for older adults has dropped sharply over the past twenty years as better health care became more affordable and available. This has given rise to what Peter Laslett referred to as the "third age of life" (the first two ages being postchildhood and the era of work and parenting).  This new age means that post-retirement life also more opportunities and challenges than ever before as older adults try to figure out what to do with the decades of life left to them.

Certainly the economic worry of having enough to retire often leads people to continue working far longer than they might have intended.  In fact, a small but growing number of older adults choose not to retire at all, especially the ones who simply cannot afford to stop working (one client I worked with referred to it as the "Freedom 85 plan").

Others choose to continue working but arrange for a less hectic work schedule with fewer work hours and more time for recreation and family activities.  To avoid an abrupt transition from full employment to retirement, many older workers arrange for a gradual shift in work schedule and responsibilities to prepare themselves for leaving work completely.

However the transition is handled, exiting the work force can extremely stressful.   Since we derive so much of our own sense of identity and self-esteem from the work we do, seeing that work end can mean a major shakeup in how we live.  Along with the financial reward of working, having a full-time job usually means regular contact with coworkers, employers, and customers, all of which can end following retirement.   Then there is the sense of purpose that comes from working and the feeling that retirement means no longer "mattering" to society the way we once did as workers.  It is this apparent loss of purpose that can be especially hard for many retirees.

Even for people who wish to continue working, that decision can be taken away from them for different reasons.  Whether due to corporate restructuring, health problems, or family responsibilities, many older adults can find themselves being forced to leave their jobs, often with little or no advance warning.  

With people living longer than ever, staying active and vital during the retirement years typically means finding new activities to take the place of their former employment.   Whether through cultivating new hobbies, traveling, returning to school, greater family involvement, or volunteer work,  staying mentally active and healthy for as long as possible means staying engaged in society.  

To help older adults stay active, the U.S. government has developed a series of innovative programs. The Foster Grandparent program was founded in 1965 to enable seniors act as "foster grandparents" to children in need.  These include children with disabilities, victims of abuse, or young people in need of older mentors to take an interest in their welfare.  Open to any adult over the age of 55, the program has proven extremely popular.  Lower income volunteers are also eligible for  a small stipend as well as supplemental accident and liability insurance. 

A similar program, RSVP, has become one of the largest volunteer networks for adults over the age of 55.   Allowing volunteers to select when and how they work, RSVP  provides opportunities to participate in activities such as renovating homes, teaching English to immigrants, tutoring and mentoring disadvantaged children, and organizing neighbourhood watch programs. RSVP also maintains a telephone reassurance program for phoning isolated seniors to check on their well-being and provide a friendly social contact.

There is also the Senior Companions program aimed at helping older adults live independently by providing extra assistance for seniors in need and their caregivers. Through simple house chores as well as providing emotional support, and transportation, these volunteers can become a lifeline for many isolated seniors who might be otherwise forced into assisted care facilities.  

These different programs were eventually merged into a single agency, the Senior Corps, which is operated under the Corporation For National and Community Service.   With more than 270,000 volunteers, the Senior Corps has been linked to organizations and programs across the entire United States.

And there are numerous other initiatives focused on helping older adults become more involved in their communities. Organizations such as, the AARP Experience Corp, and ReServe are actively involved in recruiting adults 50 years and older.  

Unfortunately, as Boone James, Matz-Costa, and Michael A. Smyer point out in their article, there are still active barriers preventing many older adults from doing volunteer work. Despite the rise in volunteering opportunities, only 25.9 percent of adults between the ages of 55 and 64 and 23.6 of those over 65 are active volunteers and most of those are located in larger cities.   I'll be discussing some of those barriers next week.