The Rev. Jerry Haas
'Seeing life as a whole, in the larger perspective of past, present and future, is an important part of coming to terms with identity in retirement.'
Prospective retirees can easily find experts to help them conjure up thoughts of idyllic freedom from daily work routines, exciting travel to distant places and, perhaps, a relaxing new lifestyle in a favored clime. Equally – if not more – important to their happiness and well-being as seniors is understanding the personal transitions and challenges that lie ahead during retirement.
Moving from full-time work to partial or full retirement is a major life event, and staying centered and focused on the spiritual aspect of the journey is crucial, according to the Rev. Jerry P. Haas. He is retired spiritual formation leader at Upper Room Ministries and co-author of a book about retiring.
"Tremendous anxiety accompanies the transition that people make into ending their career as they see it, from full-time work to something else," Haas said. "What does it mean to really stay grounded and continue to stay open to God's presence every single day and to be present to yourself and all the feelings that you have – the grief and the loss, the transition?"
Haas and R. Jack Hansen, who is mostly retired from a career in research and research leadership, collaborated on Shaping a Life of Significance for Retirement (Upper Room Books) to help seniors traverse their retirement years.
The book focuses on the specific retirement stages from preretirement when people start planning, through the early retirement years when key changes occur in relationships and self-worth, and to middle retirement years when retirees begin dealing with health issues.
Throughout the book, the authors use insights gleaned from in-depth interviews with 45 retired professionals, augmented by discussions with more than 100 other retirees, to describe the transitions, opportunities and challenges retirees face. Haas said the interviewees often were eager to talk about personal dimensions of their experiences. "The surprise was how much energy there is around getting out one's story ... around the more personal dimension," he said.
Both men and women in the study group expressed their difficulty dealing with the transition to a smaller world. The authors wrote:
"A common thread runs though the experiences of Susan, Phil, Tom and others with whom we spoke. No responsibility or activity they engaged in during the early stages of their retirement drew upon their professional, leadership or decision-making abilities and experience in any substantial or satisfying way. Other people described a second, somewhat different version of their smaller world of retirement, namely a more limited sphere of significant influence in the lives of other people. ... The loss of this significant role motivated some of the retirees to assume part-time or other teaching responsibilities in retirement."
Transitions also occur in a retiree's most important relationships with family and friends, and those life changes present both challenges and opportunities for growth.
"Family relationships, including spouses, siblings, children and grandchildren, have a potentially enriching effect on our lives in retirement. The additional discretionary time we have in this phase of life allows us to invest in these relationships in ways that can deepen them," the authors wrote.
R. Jack Hansen
THE UPPER ROOM
Retirement often affords opportunities for seniors to get involved in service to others, to grow spiritually and intellectually and to provide care to family members. All of the retirees interviewed in depth by Hansen and Haas either were active participants in a church or other religious organization or worked professionally in that area.
"The majority of these men and women indicate that they have experienced significant spiritual growth since retirement. A large number also describe a life of continuing intellectual development and remarkable intellectual contributions," the authors said.
With more flexibility and additional discretionary time, retirees can devote themselves more to the practice of spiritual disciplines, such as Bible study, meditation and prayer. For many retirees, intellectual growth continues with personal study, formal courses, travel and teaching responsibilities.
No longer able to have their vocation, position or career define who they are, retirees face the challenge of developing new feelings of self-worth and ways to feel significant.
"Seeing life as a whole, in the larger perspective of past, present and future, is an important part of coming to terms with identity in retirement," the authors said. "Rather than focus on the work we once did, in retirement, we now try to give the world our dreams, our hopes, our legacy – that becomes our identity now."
Tom Gillem is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brentwood, Tenn.