Adapting to change – learning from retirement transitions

Adapting to the kind of sudden, overwhelming change we’re witnessing now is hard, but could there be lessons to learn from people coping with major life transitions? Coach Judith Wardell explores what we can learn from those approaching retirement.

Older couple smile looking at a tablet over lunch


In these times of a global pandemic we all suddenly find ourselves adapting to change that affects every aspect of our lives. Change to practical things like our ability to work and how to work differently. Changes to our financial situation, our everyday routines and how we spend our time. On a more personal level, change in our relationships, the dynamics of family life, how we communicate with friends and the world around us. And at an emotional level, change in our identity, understanding our place in the world. We may be experiencing a sense of loss, of anger, guilt. Or maybe a sense of freedom and calm from the busyness we had before.

Through all this change we are seeking to find new ways to keep healthy, maintain our sense of well being and feel useful in the new world around us.

I certainly don’t have any magic answers to how we deal with what’s happening just now. What I can share is the learning that emerges when people in mid and later life make similar transformative changes to their lifestyle.

Through my Time of your life programme I support people who are moving into retirement. Often they don’t have a plan. They didn’t feel they needed a plan. Or they have fallen into a cliff edge retirement due to ill health, redundancy or because of caring responsibilities.

I see many parallels between the way that my clients initially respond to retirement and the way that many of us are behaving in these early days of adapting to a new reality. And I also know some of the things that have helped them manage change and go on to live a happy and healthy life.

This is what I want to share with you. Some observations and some words of support and guidance from my knowledge and experience of retirement transitions. There are three traps that you are likely to fall into…

Trap No. 1 “Keep yourself busy – The devil finds work for idle hands!”

When suddenly we are not able to do what we normally do, it seems we must rush to do other things instead.
The drive to keep busy is evident all around us.

I see people out walking on footpaths that are rarely trodden in more normal times. Garden centres are overwhelmed with home delivery orders as more people strive to be the next Monty Don. Social media is full of links to access culture online; to visit virtual museums; to watch Shakespeare plays. Facebook is full of people showing how their DIY tasks are being ticked off the list. Cupboards are being cleared out and spring cleaning is the order of the day. Calls for volunteers are quickly oversubscribed and community initiatives abound.

Keeping busy is often the mantra for those recently retired too. Keeping the diary full, the body active and the mind engaged are top of the priority when people no longer have work to occupy their day. Retirees rush to join clubs, attend classes, volunteer for anything going and set about DIY projects with gusto.

Obviously we have no choice about some of the things we have to do. We need to keep our jobs going and keep our families safe. But you are likely to have more opportunity to decide how you spend your time.

Of course, having a sense of purpose is important. The school of positive psychology has shown how happiness is a combination of both pleasure and purpose. Research into ageing well demonstrates that having a sense of purpose contributes to a healthier and longer life.

Lessons from retirees – “Beware the barrenness of a busy life”. Socrates

Simply being busy does not bring a sense of happiness and well being. Finding those real flow moments when you feel at your best and most productive requires getting to know yourself better.

● What are your key skills and strengths? What can you best offer to others?
● What gives you a sense of feeling valued? What motivates you to want to do something?
● What is your why? What do you value?
● How do you like to do things? What sort of personality are you?

These are the questions that you really should ask before you rush into a frenzy of activity. Stop and reflect. Don’t feel compelled to follow what others are doing. Don’t fill your day with ‘should do’s’ or ‘ought to do’. Think about why you have never got around to those jobs on the list. Is it just lack of time or some other reason why it’s not been your priority?

Understand what makes you tick and you can better decide how to spend your time in a way that works for you.

● If you are motivated by getting things done then you will need to set yourself some stretching goals or targets. If you get more pleasure out of working out the details and developing a process then take some time in the planning.
● If you enjoy being part of a team then you may find your mojo in interactive online groups. If you are more of an introvert, politely decline the invite and connect with people in your own way.
● If you like order and structure then a routine will serve you well. If you respond better to variety and spontaneity then that daily timetable will quickly drive you crazy!
● If you want to help other people, think about how you can offer your best self. If you are a good listener, have empathy and patience then you will be the ideal person to volunteer to keep in touch with vulnerable people in your community. If you are best working with things rather than people, then volunteering to cut the neighbours’ lawn may be your way of helping out.

Trap No. 2: “Let’s spend quality time together!”

When I ask clients what they most look forward to when they retire or choose to work less, they usually say that spending more time with family and friends is at the top of their list.

Often I meet partners who are planning to retire at the same time so they can be together all of the time.

Right now, many of us have been given this valuable gift. The opportunity to spend time at home with the ones we love. Parents and children have time learning and playing together. Partners working from home can share more of their daily lives with each other. A lovely opportunity to rediscover shared interests, to bond relationships and to make magical
memories. What’s not to treasure about this time we have together?

Outside of our homes, social distancing is changing the way we connect with the world. Suddenly we are not able to be with people, to socialise in our normal ways, to have family and friends get together.

Our immediate response is to reach out and connect more than we would normally. Video conferencing apps are being discovered and downloaded for the first time. Family and friends you haven’t spoken to in ages are reaching out to have a chat. Whatsapp messages are constant distractions on your phone. Virtual pub drinks, pub quizzes, girls night in, book clubs are happening every night of the week. Innovative use of technology to maintain social contact.

It is absolutely true that staying connected with others is hugely important to our well being. Research shows that loneliness can harm both mental and physical well being. In retirement, people often find it hard to develop new friendships and replace the camaraderie they had with work colleagues. Strong relationships with friends and family and staying connected with the world around you is a key factor in longevity.

Lessons from retirees: “..the most beautiful quality of true friendship is to understand and to be understood”

Relationships need to be worked at. Spending more time together does not automatically mean more ‘quality’ time. After the honeymoon period of living more closely together, tensions often begin to show. Most of my clients have spent their lives juggling a number of different roles and identities.

They have had space to be themselves at work and separate time to come together with partners or friends. It’s easy to get along when you have some escape routes to be yourself.

In retirement, just as now, it is unreasonable to expect that two people become one just because they spend more time together. Or that families automatically work in harmony with each other.

We are all different. We don’t all enjoy the same things. We don’t all do things in the same way. What makes a great day for one person will seem dull or frustrating to someone else.

Not all of your friends will have the same need for connecting with others. They may want to connect in different ways or may be happy with peace and solitude.

Communicate! Be prepared to ask for what you need without feeling selfish. Listen to others.

Allow them to be themselves and do things in the way they want to do them. Turn your differences into a source of strength, rather than a source of conflict. Mutual respect is essential to making relationships work as we experience new ways of living together. This is particularly true if your friends and family are still working. Often I meet people who
have decided to retire but their partner or close friends are continuing to work. There is sometimes a feeling of guilt on both sides. One person having a life of leisure, whilst one faces daily stress and grind. One person with important responsibilities at work, whilst one person feels lost and useless. It’s important to discuss how you feel and check out
assumptions before resentment sets in.

Trap No. 3: “To fail to plan is to plan to fail – keep focused”

How many top tips have you seen for working from home? Tips for how to manage home schooling? Advice for dealing with sleeplessness or anxiety?

Most of the advice that is going around focuses on maintaining a routine. Keeping a sense of structure and focus. It’s so important that you wake up at a set time, have a list, manage your time in blocks, set the kids a timetable.

Retirement planning books follow a similar theme. It would seem that if life loses its structure we lose our minds. Or worse still, we might drift into old age or waste the precious time we have left.

In the business world we are being urged to take this quiet time to work on our business. Advice is out there to help you reflect on your brand, your marketing strategy and develop your products and services. To revisit your business goals or your career plan and get ready to make your next move.

Now normally I am the greatest advocate for life planning. I encourage and enable people to have a clear vision of how they would like life to be. We work together to plan how to achieve the goal and how to anticipate barriers and seize opportunities. But sometimes we need to be more flexible.

Lessons from retirees: ”Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.” Gloria Steinem

When clients have retirement forced upon them or have not had time to give any thought to what the future may look like, my advice is to explore. To dare to dream a little. Think about what you have always wanted to do but never got around to. Open your eyes, ears and heart to what’s going on around you.

Right now, there is so much uncertainty about how the longer term future will look, we can only plan for an imagined day after tomorrow.

So don’t feel rushed into making plans or decisions. It’s OK to drift and dream a little.

Don’t let the schedule and routine take over your imagination. If you never do anything differently you will not discover new ways of being. Shake things up a little. Just learn to be mindful for a while.

● Notice how you feel.
● Capture those moments when you feel purposeful and engaged.
● Notice what is really important to you.
● Acknowledge what you discover about yourself in this new reality.
● Trust your heart and gut to lead you rather than your head.

Instead of plans, create scenarios. What might the future look like? How would you like it to be different? What may happen that may close some doors for you but open ones? When the time is right you will be ready to choose the right path and put your dreaming to good use.

Take care to avoid the traps. Let’s reflect, explore and create our future world together. If you need a little help or want to talk things over just get in touch at [email protected]

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