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The retirement decision: An emotional rollercoaster

Rarely simple, the decision to retire is often riddled with conflicting emotions and a sense of urgency. Add to that the condition of the economy. It’s a ride you won’t soon forget.

your$ magazine Spring 2009The road between thinking about retiring and actually retiring is an emotional rollercoaster for many. Money is typically a top concern, but it’s only part of the equation. We spend a good chunk of our lives working toward retirement—planning, saving, wondering. And then, suddenly we’re there. But are we really ready?

Mike Gaynor retired in 2008 after teaching middle school for 37 years. Retiring wasn’t an easy decision. In his article, “Retiring Thoughts,” Mike, shares his experience and the mix of obstacles he needed to overcome to be comfortable with his decision to retire. Excerpts from his article are included here.

Like many people, thoughts of retirement materialized in my mid-fifties. People I taught with for over 20 years pulled up and got out. They loved retirement. Every time I saw them they looked younger and happier. They told me how great life was and that I didn’t know what I was missing. What was I waiting for?

Mentally being there
While money plays a major role in the decision to retire, there’s an emotional readiness that many require before taking the plunge. Challenges associated with a change in identity and questions over self-worth and one’s purpose beyond work often undermine the “golden years” for those unprepared for the change.

For Mike, the decision to retire was complicated by the fact that he really loved what he was doing.

I got up every morning and looked forward to the day ahead. I enjoyed the people I taught with; they were vibrant, fun to be with, and they had a good feel for middle schoolers. I felt like I was still contributing—still felt connected with my students. I was still having fun.

Retirement is more than just having enough money. I had to be socially and emotionally ready to change my lifestyle.

Baby steps
During the summer of 2007, Mike and his wife Colleen attended a group session with a state pension counselor. The good news was the Wisconsin Retirement System would provide a comfortable monthly income. The financial end of things was looking pretty good.

The hold up was me. I talked about retirement, I researched retirement, but deep down I had no intention of retiring.

Baby Boomers, like Mike, are healthier, more active and diverse in interests than preceding generations. Not surprising then, Mike spent a good deal of time thinking about what he might do when he retired.

I love to fish. Early spring and late fall fishing in Wisconsin are great. I have never been able to really do that while I was teaching—that would be a blast. I have a honey-do list that could easily keep me busy for a year. Our 43-year-old house needs some attention…I am a putterer, and I really like working on projects around the house. I needed to know I could keep active.

Mike required a new mind set. Retirement had to be more like a career change instead of a career-ending event—not a winding down but rather a new episode of contributing. Mike needed to find a way to be productively engaged and develop a new identity beyond his teaching career. It also required the support of Colleen.

Spousal buy in
Retirement may create a host of problems for couples who have been together for a long time. Patterns develop within those relationships that may be disrupted by retirement. Dr. Stephen Treat, the director and CEO of the Council for Relationships and an instructor in psychiatry and human behavior at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia suggests that couples talk about retirement and start to anticipate it. What will your days look like? How much time will you spend together? Are your retirement goals aligned?

It was very important to me that my wife endorsed my retirement. If she doubted the decision or questioned it, I decided I would continue to work. I had friends who retired but both spouses didn’t consent to the decision, and the retirement became problematic. Colleen encouraged me to go ahead with my decision.

For Mike and Colleen, the transition has gone smoothly. Colleen still teaches kindergarten in the Kansasville-Dover district (her choice). Mike has taken on more of the daily household chores to take some of the pressure off Colleen. “I don’t know how she did it all these years. Working full time and tending to our family. It’s the least I can do,” he says.