Retirement. We save for it. We dream of it. And each day that we log at work brings us one day closer to it.
But all too often, this long-awaited stage heralds not blissful relaxation but a nagging feeling of … “Now what?”
What’s the Plan?
“I think the underlying issue for a lot of the challenges of a good post-retirement life is that we basically don’t tend to think about or plan for that phase of our lives until we’re there,” says Bob Knight, PhD, a professor in the School of Psychology and Counseling at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia.
“We have years of education to prepare us for our careers, and we spend years thinking about and planning them. We tend not to spend any time at all planning for retirement. More generally, we just don’t think about the full life span.”
Yet there is plenty of time to mull over options as the time approaches, says Dr. Knight, especially given that retirement for most people today is more of a gradual transition that involves part-time paid or volunteer work before stopping work entirely.
The key to a successful, happy retirement is preparation, he says, but not just the financial kind. Too often, people forget to plan for how they will maintain their physical, psychological and emotional health. For example, they may think about relocating to a less expensive, less stressful part of the country, but fail to consider what they will do when they get there or how they will maintain the social connections so crucial to good emotional health.
Dr. Knight recommends beginning to sow those connections long before you buy that retirement home. “If you plan to relocate after retirement and it’s at all affordable, spend at least a full year where you plan to move before making irreversible decisions to move,” he says.
“Experience all four seasons there. See what it’s like to be a local rather than a tourist. My sense from clinical experience working with older adult clients is that we tend to underestimate the importance of friendship connections and familiarity of place when we move, and perhaps overestimate contact with family.”
He also cautions against waiting for retirement to arrive before finding activities that can fill the time once dedicated to work. “It is a really useful — and often neglected — part of planning for retirement to develop and begin being active in things that you enjoy, that you can continue after leaving work,” he says.
Those activities, he said, should include things that get you up and moving. “Physical exercise and maintaining a healthy weight are two of the most broadly effective things one can do to maintain physical and mental health and well-being into the later years of life,” says Dr. Knight.
A Change for the Better
Even if your lifestyle has been sedentary or unhealthy, research shows that it’s not too late to reap the rewards of positive changes as you head into your older adult years. A Johns Hopkins-led-multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis, which tracked more than 6,000 people ages 45 to 84 for more than seven years, showed that those who quit smoking, got regular exercise, maintained a healthy weight and followed a Mediterranean-style diet (including fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, olive oil and seafood) decreased their risk of death by 80 percent.
If you smoke, quitting is particularly important to maintaining good health. Studies show that the risk of having a heart attack drops almost immediately (within 24 hours) after quitting, and that quitting during middle age can cut the risk of premature death nearly in half.
Finally, the researchers at Hopkins note that not only can you teach an old dog new tricks, it may be the best thing you can do for him. Taking on new challenges, such as learning a new language or even picking up the crossword puzzle, is a great way to stay sharp and maintain good brain health — as well as keeping boredom at bay.