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Doctor Debug was published in the Seattle magazine Tekbug

Now published in Montana's Natural Life News and Directory
Published in September-October 2006 Edition


Debugging Retirement


    Dear Dr. Debug:

      I was forced to retire early last year due to my company downsizing its work force. I had worked for them for 27 years. I was 62. I found out the hard way that an unexpected retirement like mine can be extremely stressful and difficult and, not just for me, but for my whole family. Can you give your readers some information about the psychological aspects of retirement? -- Signed: Recovering From Retirement.

    Dear Recovering:

      Thank you for writing! Believe me, many people can relate to how difficult it is to retire. Lee Iococca, the legendary former Chrysler Corporation Chairman, put it this way: "Everybody says you've got to get ready financially -- no, no, you've got to get ready psychologically!" Although retirement is a complex subject and it generally means something different to almost everyone, I think it is possible to discuss a few of the most significant aspects of retirement in this short column.

      How much of a detrimental psychological impact retirement may have on any particular person has a lot to do with the circumstances of retirement. Is it forced? Is it due to a disability? Or, has it been planned? A forced retirement that is unexpected and unwanted, can result in feelings of hurt, resentment, anger, and jealousy, which will greatly complicate the "normal" challenges of retirement.

      As much as we all more-or-less dream of retirement as a time of relaxation and no one telling us what to do, the reality of retirement can be feelings of loss, lower self-esteem, boredom, social isolation and, often, more complicated relationships with our partners. However, in spite of the many retirement challenges, studies have shown that the effects of voluntary retirement as compared to a group of similar but still employed people were mostly positive -- the retirees reported lower stress levels, more exercise, and less alcohol use.

      Even though studies have shown that retirees generally feel less stress and are healthier by many measurements, 69% of respondents in a 2002 United States AARP survey indicated they would work past their retirement age and, in 2003, 45% of AARP respondents stated they were likely to work into their 70s and 80s. In a very significant way, "retirement" is now thought of as part-time or partial. Very few people desire the traditional definition of retirement -- playing or doing next to nothing full time.

      There is more to this desire to only partially retire than just financial security -- people have learned that staying active and involved and pursuing goals that are meaningful and emotionally rewarding allow them a level of satisfaction and mental wellness that a traditional retirement may not. One of the easiest ways to stay active and involved is through employment. Other methods for staying active and involved are through volunteer work, community service, and life-long learning. Recent books that reflect the new retirement attitude have titles like "Don't Retire, REWIRE!, "The New Retirement," and "The Psychology of Retirement."

      Although there are many mental wellness principles that can assist in making the transition to retirement less stressful, it appears that the number-one principle is "gradual change is less stressful." So, consider reducing work hours gradually, rather than just stopping work suddenly. This option may not be available to all employees, so think about finding part-time work similar to what you are doing at the time of your planned retirement. If part-time work is not available, seriously consider volunteer work that you feel would be useful to both you and the organization for which you may be volunteering. I often recommend starting meaningful volunteer work before retirement so that there is a "bridge" into retirement.

      Even long and happy marriages can be challenged by retirement. The challenges can come from many sources and depend a lot on what the relationship was like before the retirement. For instance, if a couple has been accustomed to spending a lot of time apart, spending more time together can present problems.

      A very famous article about the "Retired Husband Syndrome" (RHS) appeared in the Washington Post in October 2005. Although Nobuo Kurokawa coined the syndrome name in a presentation to the Japanese Society of Psychosomatic Medicine in 1991, it has relevance to retirement in the United States. In Japan, it is very clear that retired husbands have been making wives sick in unprecedented numbers for many years.

      A typical RHS scenario included husbands who had previously worked long hours and whose entire social life had revolved around work. Their wives had developed their own lives. After retirement, the husband ended up almost never leaving the house, reading, watching television, and "barking" orders to his spouse. Often, the RHS husband would not allow his wife to even go out with her friends. After retirement, the wife's life was completely changed and she ended up being "over-managed" by the constantly at-home spouse.

      The stresses produced by such circumstances led to a large number of wives developing ulcers and other stress-related disorders. The solution in Japan has consisted of wives getting into psychotherapy and retired husbands getting into "support" groups. Reportedly, there are more than 3,000 support groups aimed at ''retraining" retired Japanese men to be more independent and communicative with their wives. One such retirement group is called "Men in the Kitchen."

      RHS occurs in the United States, but it is generally less common and less dramatic. In general, our culture has less rigid gender roles. However, it is a well-known phenomenon. A popular U.S. joke is "Retirement is twice as much husband and half as much money." In my opinion, the condition should be called "Retired Partner Syndrome" (RPS), because, depending on the circumstances of the partnership, it can affect one or both partners in any long-standing relationship. What are the solutions?

      In Japan, the solution has been therapy and supportive services for the wife and education and social groups for the retired husbands. RHS husbands in Japan needed to (1) learn how to stop micro-managing their wives, (2) listen and communicate with their wives, (3) get a social life again, and, (4) learn how to take care of themselves (cook, clean, wash clothes, and the like). In the United States, the same solutions apply. However, in the United States, there has not been the same focus on establishing formal programs for assisting RHS husbands with their retraining and education.

      Education and preparation is the key to a smoother transition to retirement for any couple. Reading about RHS should be required reading. Once you know in advance (or even belatedly) about the typical repercussions of retirement for relationships, you can, as a couple, prepare for or fix problems related to those changes. Obviously, such positive preparation (or repair) relies on both spouses accepting that they may need to change some things about themselves and how they structure their time. I hope this helps. -- Best wishes, Dr. Debug.



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Dear Shrink!
Mental Wellness
Adult Attention Deficit Disorder
[ Other Links ] [ Politics ]
[ Style ]
Terms of Use
Legal Notices

RON STERLING, M.D.
DoctorDebug.comô
Seattle, Washington


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