23 Strategies for a Happy, Healthy Retirement

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By Mike DuBose with Debra DuBose and Blake DuBose

To most people, retirement sounds like a dream. After decades of work, they look forward to spending unlimited “time off” with friends and family, visiting new places, and taking up hobbies. What many fail to realize, however, is that retirement requires extensive planning and preparation—or else that “dream” can become a nightmare of boredom and depression. In fact, in a 2011 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and National Public Radio, one in four retirees said that their lives were worse than before they retired!

In the first installment of this two-part series, we considered financial concerns relating to retirement. This segment deals with an equally important concern: how to enter retirement in a healthy physical and emotional state. Therefore, we’ll address some of the major psychological issues that retirees face, as well as some ways to plan happier, healthier “golden years.”

Expectation vs. Reality: In a 2011 Investopedia article, financial planner Mark Cussen, CFP theorizes that most individuals go through six stages as they transition into retirement:

  1. Pre-planning: “Many people face retirement like a running back on the football field who dodges or plows through one defender after another until reaching the end zone,” Cussen writes.Most people just can’t wait to reach the goalpost! There is a wide variation on how well individuals and families plan (both financially and emotionally) during this stage.
  2. The Big Day: Retirees bid fond farewells to all their colleagues as they leave the workplace. It’s a happy time—and the shortest of Cussen’s six stages.
  3. The Honeymoon Phase: Retirees enjoy their newfound freedom and start doing some of the things they have always wanted to do.
  4. Disenchantment: Then, the emotional letdown comes. People realize that retired life has its problems, too. “So, this is it?” they wonder.
  5. Reorientation: Individuals and couples begin to ask themselves questions like, “Who are we? What purpose do I have? What do I do next?” Cussen says that this is the most difficult of the stages, but that “answers to these questions must be found if the retiree is to feel a sense of closure from his or her working days.”
  6. Routine: At this point, individuals and couples move on from their previous lives and form their new identities. Cussen says, “Finally, a new daily schedule is created, new marital ground rules for time together versus time alone are established, and a new identity has been at least partially created.” Some of the retirees we interviewed called this a “retooling” of their lives. Over time, retirees become accustomed to (and happy in) their new routine.

Everyone must navigate through rough patches to reach a happy, healthy retirement, and those who have planned well usually have the smoothest voyages. Sadly, many people expect to jump right into a retired lifestyle without any real effort. “People have a certain degree of fantasy about retirement,” said American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) retirement specialist Denise Loftus in an article by Cathy Lu. Many individuals and couples have trouble reconciling their expectations of fun with the negative aspects of retirement (e.g. reduced income, loss of structure, age-related health problems, and smaller social network), which can get them “stuck” in one of Cussen’s stages.

Each person is different, so it’s hard to tell how well any individual will make the transition. However, there are some common themes. In a University of Chicago study, Calvin Hoyt found that the following factors “play a significant part in determining the individual’s adjustment to retirement: (a) the reason for retirement (whether compulsory or voluntary); (b) the process of retirement (whether abrupt or gradual); (c) age and occupational status at the time of retirement (whether self-employed or not self-employed); (d) the degree of preparation for retirement; (e) the individual’s general relationship to society and changes in this relationship; and (f) the individual’s attitude towards his work.”  

Emotional Repercussions: Retirement is a big lifestyle change, and inadequate planning can create or exacerbate psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, withdrawal, regret, envy, bitterness, and anger. Divorce and sometimes even suicide are potential results.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people now die from suicide than from car crashes. The jump in suicide rates for older Americans is even more startling. Between 1999 and 2010, the suicide rate for men aged 50 to 60 grew by nearly fifty percent; for women in their 60s, sixty percent. The reasons are not entirely clear, although Tara Bahrampour noted in a May 2013 Washington Post article “it likely stems from a complex matrix of issues particular to a generation that vowed not to trust anyone older than 30 and who rocked out to lyrics such as, ‘I hope I die before I get old.’”

Indeed, the Baby Boomer generation seems to be having a particularly difficult time navigating the emotional pitfalls of retirement. Bob Knight, professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California (and a Baby Boomer himself) told Bahrampour that Baby Boomers are often reluctant to accept that they are getting older. “We haven’t idealized growing up and getting mature in the same way that other cohorts have,” Knight said. Baby Boomers’ high stress rates make them vulnerable not only to depression, but also fatigue, which is linked to sleep apnea, thyroid disease, and heart disease. Thus, they face both emotional and physical dangers.

Family Matters: Tensions or issues with relatives can also complicate matters.Some retirees simultaneously care for their parents and support their grown children, and they can be pressured to serve as frequent babysitters or “day care” for their grandchildren—so much for the carefree vacations they had planned! Many retirees also experience friction when they try to advise their adult children on how to live their lives or raise their own children. Those who worry about their children being unhappy in their jobs or unprepared for adulthood also experience increased stress, grief, and depression.

With more young people moving back in with their parents after college, “empty nest” syndrome is another big risk to retirees’ family relationships. When the last child finally does move out of the home, parents can find it difficult to fill the void. Some feel that their purpose in life is complete and experience insecurity about the future and their self-worth. This can be compounded when a spouse is retiring, the couple’s marriage is unstable or unhappy, or the wife is going through menopause. The emotional issues raised can wreak havoc on an individual, a marriage, and/or within a family.

Marriage Issues: When one or both partners in a marriage have worked for decades and then stop, it changes the relationship. The partners may be unprepared to spend as much time together, feel as if they have lost their identities, or lash out at each other due to other retirement-related stressors. Some couples just can’t weather the shift. In fact, a 2011 study by Bowling Green University reported that the divorce rate has doubled amongst couples over 50 years old in the last twenty years. According to our research, some common scenarios include:

  • One partner retires while the other spouse wishes to continue working. Clashes may occur when the working partner expects the other to perform more chores at home.
  • Disagreements erupt when the halves of the couple have different expectations. One may want to stay busy with hobbies, travel, and volunteerism, while the other partner wants a more relaxed, homebody lifestyle.
  • Couples try to do everything together but lack the same goals (or “bucket lists”), resulting in frustration. One partner may try to control or limit the other’s actions to fit his or her own wants and expectations.
  • The retiring partner “helps” his or her spouse reorganize and clean out the house, annoying the other person.
  • Couples downsize their home and must deal with the stress of the move. Those who change neighborhoods often miss the social connections they had with former neighbors.
  • Many individuals move from the stressful workplace to a retirement of feeling overwhelmed, spending enormous amounts of time and energy on meaningless and joyless tasks instead of slowing down and enjoying life.
  • Lack of savings and financial instability leave couples unable to do the fun things they had envisioned, causing stress and bitterness.
  • Workaholic spouses built their lives around their business. Once retired, they find they have little in common with their mate because they never developed common interests or communicated while they were active in the workforce.  

Some unhappy couples cannot survive financially on their own, so they reluctantly live out their retirement years together. The bickering and unhappiness they endure make them even more miserable, increasing their stress and risk of depression and other health issues.

Health Troubles: Health declines naturally with age. But add negative behaviors common to the American lifestyle, especially obesity, and retirees can see their health deteriorate rapidly. Sixty-nine percent of Americans are overweight or obese, according to the CDC--and two out of every five Americans aged 55-64 are obese. In fact, the Trust for America's Health reported that 62 percent of 50-64 year olds claim to have at least onf of the following obesity-related conditions: diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and/or high cholesterol. The human metabolism slows with age, making it even harder to lose weight. To top it all off, mul.tiple studies have shown that caring for a physically disabled spouse or other relative can be physically and emotionally stressful, placing the caregiver at a heightened risk of illness and chronic disease as well.

Financial Woes: As we discussed in the previous installment of this series, most retirees do not have adequate retirement savings, and many outlive their funds. This creates significant stress for retirees and their adult children, who may have to assume some of their parents’ expenses and care. 

Lack of Purpose: Financial planner Bob Bryant, CPA/PFS of Raymond James Financial Services in Irmo, SC said, "I counsel many people approaching or in retirement around two core issues: money and how to best utilize or invest their assets through retirement; and how they plan their emotional lives in the Golden Years. While some have saved money, they have not thought much about what they will do during the 16 waking hours each day or what their purpose in their retirement will be." While interviewing retirees for this column, we often heard a similar message: "I went from 100 e-mails and 30 calls a day to zero! It was like falling off a cliff. Retirement was one of the hardest things I have ever done." In fact, in Hoyt's study, one-third of interviewees reported difficulties adjusting to retirement. Even Dear Abby weighed in on unhappy retirees in an August 2013 column.

Building Bridges to a Happy Retirement: Over the last four years, I have transitioned from running several businesses into semi-retirement. I am still somewhat involved, but thanks to the outstanding professionals I have hired, my group of companies can “run themselves” without micromanagement from me!

So far, retirement has been the most fun I have ever experienced. I get up each morning excited about what the day will bring! At the same time, going from me spending 8+ hours at work each day to spending 16 hours together with my wife, Debra (who helped write this article) each day certainly created a different landscape for our relationship. We love being around each other, but we had to reprogram our lives, and we’re still making adjustments. We’ll share some of our thoughts, combined with those of the people we interviewed and researchers, on how to have a satisfying retirement.

Start Planning Early: Create a solid budget that reflects your planned retirement lifestyle, with ongoing savings for travel, fun, and emergencies. Save at least 6% of your gross income (preferably more), work as long as you can, and delay drawing Social Security (preferably until 70). You will need at least $500,000 in savings when you hit 65. Continue to work and build up your nest egg as long as possible. Living paycheck-to-paycheck (or Social Security check-to-Social Security check) is not a viable option!

Retire Debt-Free: This may mean lowering your standard of living, paying off home mortgages and other debt early, forgoing a fancy car, changing expensive tastes, etc.—but it will be worth it in terms of reduced stress. Don’t expect to spend money like you did when you had a salary.

If Possible, Transition Slowly: Ask your employer if you can serve as a consultant or part-time employee for a while after leaving your full-time job. This will allow you to ease into retirement so it’s not as much of a jolt, plus you can continue building your savings.

Seek Advice: Obtain input on your retirement plan from many different people, particularly certified financial planners and friends who have already retired. Read the previous part of this series for more advice.

Make Decisions Together: If you are married, your spouse should be involved in all aspects of your retirement plan. Whatever your job was before retirement is moot once you retire—both spouses become co-CEOs of the home! Some things you will want to do together; others, separately. One of my passions in life is classic cars; whereas, my wife would obtain great satisfaction in putting them on the auction block—but that’s ok. I don’t force her to participate in car shows, and she doesn’t make me go on torturous shopping trips. When we plan vacations, we share desired agendas and allow time for each of us to do things we want to do, both together and individually. If we don’t agree on a major decision in life, we don’t move forward with it.

Work for a Happy Marriage: Debra and I have learned to communicate clearly and respectfully about anything that “gets on our nerves!” While our marriage isn’t perfect, we treat each other as equal partners and are still very happy after 41 years. All marriages take work, but it is worth the effort!

Find a New Passion: After he left office,former President George W. Bush started painting—and he is pretty good at it! Likewise, retirees need to discover something they enjoy doing and devote their time to it. In 2006, I determined that I was missing something in my life: knowledge! I now read three books and 10 magazines a month and four newspapers each day. I also found a new purpose for my personal life and for our businesses—“To create opportunities to improve lives.” As part of that purpose, I write for several magazines and blogs in an effort to share my mistakes, failures, research, and occasional successes with readers. I get an emotional high from writing, too!

People who are about to retire should develop a new purpose, fun hobby, or way to be valuable to others. This takes work, experimentation, and self-reflection. Branch out from your existing strengths to develop new skills. You could even start a small consulting business or return to college! Two-year colleges and recreation departments offer short-term classes on a variety of subjects such as photography, bridge, golf, dancing, ceramics, guitar, arts, gardening, and yoga. These short-term courses allow you to try new things without making a large financial or time commitment.

Internist Dr. Surb Guram, MD of SC Internal Medicine in Irmo, SC, agreed. “I remember the Chair of Internal Medicine at USC speaking to our graduating class and stressing the importance of developing a hobby outside of work,” he said. “As I have watched individuals retire over the years, the ones who have a hobby of some sort, be it a sport, a volunteering activity, gardening, etc., tend to have a much more fulfilling and enjoyable  retirement. For me, golf is something I have come to enjoy. Perhaps the fact that golf is so reflective of life makes the activity even more meaningful. As in life, you never completely master the skills, need to constantly strive for improvement, and never know what is coming around the corner. I have met some really interesting people on the golf course, and some have become dear friends. It has been inspirational to see individuals in their nineties out enjoying the game.”

Learn to Say No: When you mention that you are planning to retire, expect others to jump up with requests for your time! Although they may stroke your ego at first, don’t get roped into commitments that are boring, frustrating, or outside your areas of interest, especially those that are long-term. Be prepared to say, “Thank you for considering me, but I am fully committed now.”

Volunteer and Mentor: Without stretching yourself too thin, use your skills to help causes that you truly care about. Volunteering to help the less fortunate or mentoring others can add fulfillment to your life. For example, if you like animals, volunteer your time at a shelter like Pawmetto Lifeline in Columbia, SC.

Be Nice: It takes patience and practice, but nice people tend to be happier, perhaps because people like being around them! Read The Power of Nice by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval for more information on the benefits of treating others well.

Leave the Past Behind: As famous psychologist Erik Erikson noted, whether or not people resolve conflicts in the past affects their ability to move successfully into the future. Unfortunately, many people reach retirement age still carrying resentment, regrets, and feelings of being cheated earlier in life. For true peace and happiness, forgive people who have wronged you and let go of resentment. (You may also want to read our article on overcoming bitterness at www.mikedubose.com).

Change Yourself for the Better: In 2006, I was still allowing my past to drive my future. As I looked into the mirror, I realized that I needed to become a different and better person. I asked my employees, children, friends, spouse, and God what I should change to reach that goal. I still have a long way to go, but I have made significant strides over the past seven years. While soliciting feedback can sometimes be painful, it can help you grow to love yourself!

Make Time for Fun: There’s a reason that my classic cars’ license plates say “FUN” on them! Designate some time every day to enjoy yourself. Debra says that it’s important to just “piddle” sometimes. “It gives me great satisfaction just watching the birds and the butterflies, working with my plants, playing with our cats, reading, watching the Hallmark Channel, and doing other simple things we often miss out on when we have a busy life. Throw out some of those lists and just enjoy the simple pleasures!” she said.

Create Things to Look Forward to: Growing up in rural Darlington, SC, I spent most of my after-school time flying in a Piper Cub J-4 with my grandfather, and I love to fly and travel even now. I plan several major trips a year, which gives me something to get excited about. On many of these trips, I do very little but enjoy foreign cultures and relax, and I come home refreshed, excited, and energized!

Pare Down Your Possessions: Don’t try to save everything you have ever owned. Clutter creates stress, takes up room, and creates a lot of work for your children to deal with once you have left this Earth. A good rule of thumb: if you haven’t used it in a year, sell it, give it away, donate it, or trash it! More often than not, someone out there needs it more than you.

Turn Off the Screens: While fun to watch occasionally, the Internet and television are simply escapes. Don’t believe most of what you see or hear on them, especially on political shows. (In fact, there is evidence that watching too much cable news and political programming can stoke the fires of depression, anger, and anxiety). For real enrichment, turn away from the screens and do something that improves you or the world!

Challenge Your Brain: The brain benefits from regular exercise just like the body. Multiple medical studies have shown that keeping the brain active helps fight Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Exercise your brain regularly with puzzles, games, learning, and other mental activities.Reading is also a great way to flex your mental muscle. Need ideas of where to start? You can see a list of 70+ bestsellers recommended by Mike on his website. 

Promote Physical and Mental Health: There have been many different studies on how to live a healthy life, but some common threads appear amongst them all:eat more fish, fruits, and vegetables and less fat and red meat; lose weight; don’t smoke; keep a positive attitude; monitor Vitamin D, cholesterol, and blood pressure levels; limit caffeine; drink plenty of water; get eight hours of sleep per night; drink alcohol only in moderation; listen to your body for signs of problems; and exercise 30 minutes a day. Dr Guram also suggests thorough annual physicals to detect and treat problems early. Making these lifestyle changes can reduce health complications and add years to your life.

Having a healthy body is only half the battle. If you believe you may be depressed or anxious, there is no shame in seeking professional help. It may take some time to find the right counselor, but once you do, your life will improve enormously. You may need medication to cope with some issues, so monitor their side effects and work with your doctors to ensure that you take as few as possible. (We have also posted an article about handling depression and other mental health issues at www.mikedubose.com and www.duboseweb.com). 

Reduce Stress: Hawaii, our favorite place to visit in the world, has the longest average lifespan in the US due to a number of factors: Hawaiians eat mostly fish, vegetables, and fresh fruits; have low stress levels; spend plentiful time with family and friends; and build strong social networks. They’re also the happiest people in the US! Be more like the Hawaiians—locate the stressors in your life and reduce or eliminate them.

Build Bonds with Your Family: Work on forging good relationships with your children and grandchildren. Being a grandparent is the nearest to Heaven you can get, and it’s fun having a good relationship with your grown children (while giving them the privacy they need). Allow them to be adults and make their own decisions while providing them with consistent love. Give advice only when asked.

Let Yourself Be Happy! Many folks seem to work so hard at seeing the glass half empty! Instead of focusing on the negative, look at your many blessings. View your past mistakes and failures as gifts from which to learn. A good book on cultivating happiness is Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out by Marci Shimoff.

Pray: If you are spiritual, seek guidance from God!

The bottom line: Retirement is a journey that requires much advance thought—but as with most things in life, it is what we make it. Individuals who approach retirement with a positive mindset and a good plan will have experience the best results. As one of the greatest sports coaches in history, John Wooden, recommended, “Make every day your masterpiece!”

About the Authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, experience, success, research, and mistakes.

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College School of Business and is president of DuBose Web Group. View our published articles at www.duboseweb.com.

Mike DuBose has been in business since 1981, authored The Art of Building a Great Business, and is a field instructor with USC’s graduate school. He is the owner of three debt-free corporations, including Columbia Conference Center, Research Associates, and The Evaluation Group. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com.

Debra DuBose graduated with degrees from Winthrop University and Francis Marion University and is a former elementary and middle school teacher. She was and is a major influence on who Mike and Blake are today!

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

© Copyright 2013 by Mike DuBose and Blake DuBose--All Rights Reserved. You have permission and we encourage you to forward the full article to friends or colleagues and/or distribute it as part of personal or professional use during the year 2013, providing that the authors are credited. However, no part of this article may be altered or published in any other manner without the written consent of the authors. If you would like written approval to post this information on an appropriate website or to publish this information, please contact Katie Beck at Katie@dubosegroup.com and briefly explain how the article will be used and we will respond promptly. Shorter versions of some articles may be available.