Well, here we are, the last in the four-part series on retirement. In the previous three stories I’ve given examples of empowering retirement models. Retirement, in my opinion should be an act of empowerment and it has been my quest to discover why, for almost all of the people I talked to, it was simply something they did when the time had come, instead of an empowering act of moving forward.

First, it’s worth repeating the two most glaring statistics on retirement. Retirement is the single most stressful event of one’s life, more so than other milestones such as getting married or becoming a parent. Second, leisure time is highly overrated. If that wasn’t enough, consider that society has no expectations for retirees. What do I mean you ask? Let’s put it into context. The goal for the first 20 years of life is to be a good student; the next 20 years are for career and family building; the third 20 years continue to be career, family and fun with the additional responsibility of planning for retirement.

Life to this point is full of strong expectations; it is fully describable and serves to give us feelings of security and confidence. But what is expected of you when you retire? So far, no one had offered a clear description. Without clear societal expectations, many find themselves buying into images of happy couples living carefree in a tropical paradise or others who have no plans that go beyond golf, gardening, scrapbooking, woodworking or looking forward to doing that one task you never had time for while you were working. Actually, I’ve come to know this last statement as code for, “I have no idea!”

Regardless, both of these concepts are incongruent with statistical reality – enter confusion. No wonder retirement is stressful! One retiree described it as “a group of people blindly running toward an abyss” while another said, “we all drank the kool-aid”. Obviously it is more difficult for some than for others. Some people are perfectly suited to a life of puttering around the house, crafting and the social engagement family and friends offer and then, there are those who have figured it out.

“a group of people blindly running toward an abyss”

Interestingly, retirement never starts out stressful. During my year of research, almost all of the people I talked to were looking forward to retirement with exhilaration and a sense of freedom, while those I talked to who had already retired talked in terms of loss (loss of work, co-workers, routine, money, being needed, etc). So obviously the feeling of exhilaration doesn’t carry you very far before the feelings of loss and separation begin to creep in.

So how do we hold on to the positive feelings of exhilaration and freedom? I’ve given this an entire year of thought and discovered that most people describe their life in terms of accomplishments, big or small it doesn’t matter. People talk about what they’ve done, what they’re doing and where they’re going today, this week or this year. Accomplishments mean goals, activity and the satisfaction of accomplishment. It’s about an active journey of life that involves other people like family, co-workers, colleagues, friends and acquaintances.

It’s what we all have in common. Retired or not, all of us have dreams, desires and goals and that doesn’t end when work ends because it’s a part of who we are. But for those who have retired, the dreams, desires and goals are now vague. Without societal expectations to look to for guidance, one retiree described it as, “having the rug pulled out from under your feet”.

In addition to goals and dreams, one retiree admitted that he didn’t realize that work wasn’t a “thing”, but more of a way of life, a relationship. Many agree, explaining that all of their jobs they’ve ever had left imprints on them in the form of memories and feelings. You may not go there every day, but the relationship continues in your mind and heart. Think about it, you think you’ll keep in touch, but it seldom happens.

Rarely today are there work-place social activities you can continue with to keep you connected. Some retirees said you feel like you’ve been forgotten while others are still engaged in their ‘life of work’. Some justify these emotions with thoughts of good-riddance, you’re no longer bound to ‘that place’.

But jobs are never about bondage, they’re about connections with all sorts of people, they’re about challenges and accomplishments, camaraderie and loyalty. When you retire, you soon forget about the annoying parts of the job and long for the connection, the involvement. In a sense, retirement includes a mourning period.

One word of caution!

Many retirees look to their spouse or grandchildren to fill this relationship void saying they’re looking forward to ‘spending more time together’. However, when someone is experiencing ‘retirement loss’, looking to someone else to fill the void, it often causes relationship challenges. Even though these thoughts are well intended, you already have a long and well established relationship with them and they may not want that to change.

Feeling a workplace loss, even when retirement was planned, is a real and difficult transition of finding your ‘new’ place in the world. But retirement does not have to, “pull the rug out from under your feet” if you’re prepared emotionally. Yes, retirement comes with freedom, but the successful retirees say it’s the freedom to begin a new relationship – and it takes courage, planning and foresight.

Retirement is a personal journey but the successful retirees recommend joining every club, take every class and apply for every job. Do anything and everything you can that will introduce you to new people, new activities and new interests. Don’t get sucked into social media because that will only isolate you. Remember that as a person you still have valuable skills, wisdom and energy to offer the world and it’s time to put them to good use.

The good news is that now, it’s on your terms and that’s what retirement freedom is all about. You will find some things interest you more than others, perhaps you strike a friendship that takes you in a different direction or opportunities arise that you were not expecting. Maybe it’s a second career or entrepreneurship, it could be mentoring or volunteering, it could be a hobby club or a course of interest.

In any case, it will involve new people that bring new insights and inspiration. Before you know it, you will have filled your life with activities and people that are valuable and meaningful to you. You really can create new relationships, a new life’s direction and it can start at any time; even long before you retire which would make the transition a totally positive experience. So at the end of this four-part series on retirement I hope I’ve offered real issues, new insights and meaningful suggestions to empower your concept of retirement. I’m assigning this generation of retirees the responsibility of redefining and empowering retirement for generations to come. After all, we’ll all be there soon enough and I for one, want there to be a much clearer and less stressful path for me!

BY LYNN OGRYZLO