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Successful Aging: ‘What’s next?’ can be hard for retirees to answer

Q. My newly retired husband was a successful executive in a small company. He loved his career and was responsible for business development and sales, attending conferences, meetings and retreats, appearing at the office from morning to early evening with added business dinners. Without the structure of his work and lots of downtime, he seems to forget appointments, our commitments and more. In general, he seems OK. Yet, should I worry? L.J.

Dear L.J.

Let’s begin by addressing what might be your “serious worry piece.” If you are afraid your husband is showing signs of mild cognitive decline or even early dementia, here are some clues suggested by the Mayo Clinic that might be helpful in assessing the situation. Determine if any of these are applicable:

  • Forgetting things more often.

  • Forgetting important events such as appointments or social engagements.

  • Losing one’s train of thought or the thread of conversations, books or movies.

  • Feeling increasingly overwhelmed by making decisions, planning steps to accomplish a task or understanding instructions.

  • Having trouble finding one’s way around familiar environments.

  • Becoming more impulsive or showing increasingly poor judgment.

  • Family and friends begin noticing any of these changes.

  • Add to that list some possible depression, irritability, aggression, anxiety and apathy.

If you think your husband has some of these characteristics, see a geriatrician or other healthcare professional specializing in evaluating older adults. If these are not relevant, check these concerns off your worry list.

Next, let’s look at some other possible reasons. Your husband may be adrift because he misses his former structured work life that was his identity. His work provided him with a sense of purpose with expectations, recognition and rewards.

We know that without a structure, the use of time is one of the biggest changes that accompany retirement. Other changes may come in the form of surprises.

Here are a few examples:

  • Realizing one’s identity has come from the role at work.

  • Missing the opportunity to create change, influence or have an impact.

  • Having nowhere to go first thing in the morning.

  • Knowing that gratification came from recognition, accomplishments and challenges from work.

  • Becoming aware that social relationships depended on colleagues, co-workers, employees and bosses.

  • Realizing the importance of a work environment that encouraged learning, creativity and being on the cutting edge.

Once retired, the realization of these changes could leave one in a quandary – not knowing what to do next, feeling untethered. The question is what to do?

One approach is to analyze ones’ work experience, using it as a tool to figure out what to do with one’s time. That’s assuming the work experience has been positive. Here is an exercise I have used with thousands of pre-retirees and those already retired.

Assuming you are retired:

  1. Write a list of what you loved about your work. These “goodies” may have kept you on the same job for many years.

  2. Identify what you miss from that list.

  3. Circle the ones you miss the most.

  4. Think about what you can do to address that objective, goodie or missing piece in your retirement that can serve as a substitute.

Here are some examples from employees with whom I have worked and abbreviated options.

A manager indicated he would miss his co-workers. Options: Reconnect with some of the folks or engage in activities such as nonprofit and volunteer work that involve other people.A professor indicated she would miss her students. Option: Serve as a mentor, tutor or teach in an adult education program or in other community programs.A scientist missed his collegial relationships and the actual science. Option: Remain active in professional organizations and continue to write.A clinical social worker missed making a difference in her clients’ lives. Options: Get involved with organizations that have social impact or possibly reduce your practice to part-time.

Another way to look at structure is to develop a plan that might be a blend of schedules, to-do lists and free-flow time. Know that whatever you design can be changed.

Newly retired persons typically need a little breathing time to figure out “what’s next.” Others may have been clear about their retirement years the day after they left the workplace.

L.J., Thank you for your good question and sharing your concern. Hopefully, these tips will help clarify an approach for your husband so this next life stage can be the best one.

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