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Column: Without planning the dream of retirement can turn into a nightmare

You may have planned your finances down to the last cent – but have you considered the psychological impact of never going to work again? It’s harder to adjust than you might think, writes …

Peadar Ó Caomhánaigh

“GEORGE” IS HAPPILY retired at age 73. It’s taken him quite a few years to reach this happy state, but he’s contented being a self-described ‘man of leisure’ at last. “Retirement came as quite a shock to me,” he says, “as a professional I automatically had purpose and drive right up until the day I finally decided to retire.

I had put it off for four or five years but when I finally took the plunge, I wasn’t expecting such a drastic change. I never realised how much of my social life was made up entirely by my professional life. For a few years I just took public transport every day. I wasn’t going anywhere; I just wanted somebody to talk to.”

While it may be upsetting, George’s story is not unique. Many older people, especially older men, have severe difficulties adjusting to retirement.  The culture shock of not having to work each day can have sudden and immediate effects. Loneliness and isolation aren’t the only big risks, either.

The Harvard School of Public Health found that retired older people were 40 per cent more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke than those still in employment for the first year of retirement. While leisure time has been universally accepted to be beneficial to health, it appears that a sudden exposure to too much leisure time can be detrimental, even deadly.

The importance of planning for retirement

This underscores the importance of planning for retirement, a habit not prevalent in Irish society.  While financial planning for CEOs and company directors is available from all the state-supported banks, little care is given to the well-being of ordinary workers as they approach retirement; and almost no attention is paid to the mental and psychological well-being of the almost and recently retired.

The Retirement Planning Council, a not-for-profit organisation based in Dublin, provide pre-retirement courses for hundreds of public, semi-state and private companies, but this is just a drop in the ocean of Ireland’s roughly 170,000 registered businesses.

So what makes retirement such a burden for so many older people?  The Irish Centre for Social Gerontology, based in NUI Galway, found that older people who are socially engaged and active in their communities lead healthier lives.  This concept of “health production”, or older people creating their own good mental and physical health, is evident in the volunteer spirit seen in Ireland’s community groups, ICA guilds, Tidy Towns committees, Active Retirement Associations and GAA clubs, to name but a fe.  The ICSG interviewed older volunteers and found that 52 per cent of socially active older people feel they have ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ health, compared to 40 per cent of the population at large.

Four key components to a happy ‘third age’ of life

When researchers in the USA asked study participants 80 and older what made retirements enjoyable, healthy and rewarding, four key elements emerged: social networks, play, creativity and lifelong learning.  These were seen by those enjoying their retirements as the key components to a healthy and satisfying ‘third age’ of life.

For many, in particular those who have no great desire to join a large group so soon after retirement, the only barrier is access to these four key components. Ciarán McKinney, Director of Development for Age and Opportunity, has worked on one possible avenue for older people to enjoy their retirement.

“We heard during the Bealtaine Arts Festival of 2011 that there were older people who would love to take part in local cultural events but they didn’t have someone to go with, so we started ‘Cultural Companions’, says McKinney, “Because we facilitate local networking it’s ideal for people who don’t want to join groups; you can meet up with one or two people from your area and arrange to go to things together, or you can come along to the events we organise and meet new friends and take it from there. For some people it’s been a lifeline.”

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Social interaction is the key

Whether in large clubs or small groups, social interaction can be the difference between the despair loneliness and isolation, and a healthy and active retirement. For George, at least, the difference is striking.

“Just a few years ago, I really didn’t know what I was going to do.  It seemed like retirement was a prison sentence,” he says, “This week, however, I’m in Kerry playing bowls at a national competition organised by Active Retirement Ireland and next week I’m up at the crack of dawn for the Bealtaine Dawn Chorus.  Had I known there was this much to do, I’d have retired years earlier!”

*George’s name has been changed.

Peter Kavanagh works with Active Retirement Ireland, Ireland’s largest community-based older people’s organisation, and is a member of the National Steering Group for the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity Between Generations.

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Peadar Ó Caomhánaigh

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