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Adjusting to retirement

Retirement can and should be an exciting time. For perhaps the first time, you have the leisure and freedom to pursue travel or other interests freely, to slow down and 'smell the roses.' However, for many men, retirement can be challenging. It is not just adjusting to the loss of a stable work routine and its associated sense of purpose that can be hard. Retirement brings new relationship issues, and for men who do not find new meaningful activities to replace work, there is the risk of boredom and a sense of purposelessness that can lead to depression and other health problems.

Although work practices are becoming increasingly diverse and flexible, with far fewer people staying in a single job for thirty or forty years, still there are many men retiring today who have been working in one role for many years. For these men, who have not experienced much variation in their daily routine for a long time, such a major change of lifestyle is often very stressful. 

Who am I now?

For many men in our culture, identity revolves around a number of central roles and skills:

  • being a good provider 
  • being 'useful' 
  • being independent 
  • being an achiever 

In order to adjust successfully to retirement, men have to start redefining the bases of their sense of self. Without the role of breadwinner to rely on, you may start to ask, who am I? Self-esteem can start to fall and depression can set in.

Other social roles may evolve in retirement, such as:

  • being a good carer for one's partner 
  • being a community elder 
  • being a good grandparent 

However, the greatest challenge post-retirement is coming to define yourself less in terms of your roles and activities — what you do — and more in terms of simply 'being'. Instead of answering the question 'Who are you?' with a 'doing' answer such as, 'I am a father/engineer/teacher/handyman' etc., you come to answer simply, 'I am me.' The achievement of this degree of self-acceptance is one of the great gifts of later life.

Relationship challenges

Retirement brings new challenges to a relationship. Both parties may have adjusted to a certain amount of time together each day. With retirement, the time spent in each other's company greatly increases. This intensive contact can disturb the equilibrium of the relationship and bring unresolved tensions to the surface. 

Both men and women may struggle to adjust to the new situation. If prior to retirement, your partner stayed at home while you worked, she may resent your intrusion on her traditional 'territory', especially if, in an attempt to direct your urge to 'do something', you attempt to impose yourself on her well-established routines.

Tension can also arise out of the increased need for joint decision-making. Whereas, prior to retirement, the routine of work allowed for a relatively clear division of decision-making responsibilities, after retirement, there may be many more decisions that need to be made together. Unless both of you are prepared to listen and be flexible, a shift in decision-making can be a source of conflict.

The key, as with most relationship issues, is communication (see Communication in Relationships). Without effective, open communication, including the capacity to compromise and negotiate, the challenges of retirement can place critical strain on a marriage.

Keep active

There is a lot of research to show that the people who cope best with retirement are those who stay active and involved. This might include:

  • Developing an old hobby or starting a new one. 
  • Staying physically active, through walking, swimming, gym or sport. Make sure your exercise routine is appropriate for your physical capacities and limitations. 
  • Volunteering with a charity or church group. 
  • Working part-time. 
  • Studying a course with The University of the Third Age (U3A). U3As offers adult learning courses for older people. See the Links page for information about where to find a U3A in your area. 

Stay in touch

Loneliness and isolation are a risk in old age for the simple reason that as people grow older, more and more of their friends tend to die, move away, or lose the mobility needed to keep in touch. This is particularly an issue for men, who tend to emphasise self-reliance and put less effort into maintaining their social networks. Many men do not realise the extent of their reliance on work friendships until after retirement. Here are some suggestions for warding off post-retirement isolation:

  • Make the effort to stay in contact with family and friends. Offer to babysit your grandchildren. 
  • Check out local community centres for upcoming activities you might enjoy. Even if you're not sure, try something new: you might surprise yourself! 
  • Men's Sheds offer a space to share ideas and skills and participate in practical activities such as woodwork, metalwork and restoring old cars. See www.mensshed.org

For support on this topic

For general peer support and advice in relation to this topic, please visit our forum.
MensLine Australia has professional counsellors available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, providing confidential and anonymous information and support for all relationship issues. Call us on 1300 78 99 78 or register for online counselling.