Healthy Aging Column – Enjoying Retirement: Who Copes Well?

Retirement can induce both excitement and fear. For many, retirement means the freedom to pick and choose how we spend the rest of our lives.

Without question, having enough money in retirement is a very real concern. It is the initial motivation that drives us to take the first steps toward retirement planning. Although financial security is of primary importance, considerable thought should also be given to the quality of how we spend our time once we retire.

Barring a major catastrophe, most Americans will live to the age of 65. Beyond this age, half will live another 17 to 20 years. Studies show that satisfaction in retirement directly relates to the ability to replace meaningful aspects of one’s career with pursuits that hold similar meaning or value. For those who found little satisfaction in their jobs or career, simply maintaining an element of structure can bring a sense of meaning and accomplishment.

Research undertaken by the American Association of Retired Persons bears this out. According to AARP, maintaining a semblance of structure that existed in one’s work life is key to the smooth transition from work to retirement. These aspects include: maintaining a regular schedule of tasks, having well-established goals, maintaining relationships that are meaningful and maintaining a sense of challenge. In practice, these four aspects help provide stability through the inevitable changes that occur in later life, such as declining health or loss of a significant other.

Several studies point to the ability to adapt to change as central to the quality of one’s life as one ages. "Life experience," the skills of adaptation developed over a lifetime, become necessary assets when adjusting to new and unfamiliar circumstances. In one study undertaken on centenarians, those who adapted well to situations of stress shared dominant characteristics, such as the ability to respond creatively to change, to adequately cope with anxiety, to remain inquisitive and creative and to successfully incorporate new situations into their lives.

Although life change is age-related, Dr. Robert Butler, noted gerontologist and author, pointed out that "the capacity for curiosity, creativity, surprise and change do not invariably decline with age." Satisfaction in retirement, then, is an unending process of identifying needs and desires and adapting accordingly.

Perhaps one common error is waiting until after retirement to pursue a hobby or goal. By waiting, it may not happen. Nurture and cultivate personal passions early on. Start engaging in activities years before to acquire the essential skills and financial resources necessary to flourish in this new endeavor. Carving out time for personal pursuits while still employed will lessen the void that often comes with leaving a fulfilling job.

Other important factors to consider, according to AARP, are to stay current on governmental and employer policies that pertain to benefits. Make certain your plan for financial security goes beyond investment strategies to include estate planning and other legal matters. Give considerable thought to the standards of living you would like to maintain in retirement. Calculate costs for travel and leisure pursuits, keeping in mind that work-related expenses such as clothing and meal costs will go way down, or will be eliminated altogether.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that health, relationships and interests will change. Take note of resources from which to draw when these changes occur. New expectations often develop within a relationship – for instance, when working couples retire at different times. Prepare new systems of support to replace those previously provided through employment. Understand that there is likely to be an adjustment period upon retiring, and that it’s natural to mourn the loss of a career and the status that came with it.

Redirect work goals toward new careers, part-time work, self-employment or volunteer opportunities. For financial reasons, or merely as an incentive to take on a new challenge, an increasing number of Americans are working after retirement. Consider re-packaging transferable work skills to seek out voluntary or paid positions.

As with any life transition, there is always apprehension. However, with some preliminary thought and planning, those initial retirement anxieties will diminish as our new life in leisure unfolds. It can, and should be, a time for us to fully enjoy.

For more information on this topic, contact Colorado State University Cooperative Extension in your county. Additional articles on Healthy Aging are available from Colorado State University Cooperative Extension by going online at and clicking on Info Online then Consumer/Family, and scrolling to Healthy Aging.