Psych Services: Here’s the Unvarnished Truth about Retirement

Lisa Garmezy

Leaving the job without careful planning may produce a “sugar rush” of happiness followed by a crash of boredom, in the words of Dr. Elizabeth Horner.


That concern reflects a vision of retirement as pure leisure, common in the 1970s. Advertisers, sensing an affluent market, swooped in, pitching retirement villages and golf clubs. The earlier one quit work, the more he was perceived to have “made it.”


Longer life spans and more educated retirees contributed to a shift in perspective over the years. More recently, pundits urged us to find meaningful activity, not just relaxation, for the 25 years or so we’d stick around after winding up our careers. Plus, economic issues and rising health care costs meant people plain couldn’t afford to stop working entirely. The fortunate left full-time employment for part-time jobs.


“Bridge employment,” a period of transition between 40-hour employment and a full stop, is the new normal. Sixty percent of people 60 and older choose it. A 2009 study found that people who did part-time work in their fields after retiring were healthier mentally and physically than those who stopped abruptly.


When bridge work allows delaying Social Security payments, you’re earning in two ways. Your benefit increases eight percent each year you delay collecting after your “normal” retirement age, until you turn seventy.


The trend toward picking up part-time work developed when life expectancies were rising. In 2016, Americans’ projected lifespans went down for the second year in a row, thanks in part to the opioid crisis. That hadn’t happened since bad flu epidemics in the early sixties. If life gets shorter and less money is needed, older workers might once again go directly from working full-time to quitting completely.


At this point most millennials, with no pensions to count on, expect to stay in the labor force as long as their health permits. Brutal.


Strolling the Bridge


I left HPD almost a year ago. There wasn’t a sugar rush, just a slight downshift. Now, I hear the stories of your lives during pre-employment testing or critical-incident counseling less than 20 hours per week. I always thought I’d volunteer but . . . getting paid is better.


The rest of the work week vanishes. My friends who retired before me found this mysterious. It’s not a cosmic quirk: instantly, you’re less efficient.


Many mornings start with a second cup of coffee and a closer look at the news. Errands aren’t condensed into one all-purpose Target run. Someone said you spend less time making money and more time saving money: I fear I have become the older lady with coupons holding up the pharmacy line.


For typical retirees, and for me, caring for family members and helping out friends occupies a chunk of what used to be the work week. Readers should find out what their families have planned for them in retirement, so that everyone is on the same page before the big day.


Home and yard chores also suck up more time. The increased level of activity can boost the health of people who had desk jobs. Patrol officers, on the other hand, might become more sedentary.


Talents and Traits


As these changes take place, bridge employment allows the retiree’s identity to change gradually. The urgency around the question “Who am I without my profession?” fades.


A hobby, or if you’re lucky, a passion, fosters developing a new sense of self. George W. Bush—the artist—approached retirement with curiosity about the unknown. His moving paintings of military personnel and veterans appeared in Portraits of Courage, published in 2017.


How did the President begin? He picked out a few paint colors, opting for burnt umber as a tribute to his mother’s cooking. Then, “for the first time in my 66 years, I picked up a paintbrush that wasn’t meant for drywall.” He jumped in.


Openness to experience is a strength and an opportunity. You probably have this trait if you adjust easily to new assignments, jobs, or even careers. Leaving HPD is less likely to be stressful for you.


My clinical experience suggests this characteristic weakens after time on the thin blue line. Rookies are drawn to novelty and excitement; veterans welcome predictability.


The Work Ahead


People differ, so it’s okay to walk the bridge, stop on a dime, or just keep going, like Warren Buffet or the late Stephen Hawking. Retiring well, psychologically, boils down to three challenges:


  1. Who are you and what do you like to do?
  2. Giving and Connecting. Retirement is unhealthy when it brings isolation from others. Note that the connections built through volunteer work are usually more enduring than professional networks.
  3. Those blessed with enough funds will make the scary 180-degree turn from building net worth to seeing it decline. All of us have valuable skills and time to spend as we choose. Somewhere, a clock is faintly ticking: my clients have felt pressure to work on bucket lists before physical limitations—or worse, cognitive ones—interfere.


Completing these tasks will help officers who stayed silent about the horrors of the streets get through a fourth challenge, Healing.


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