Through the Looking Glass: Helping Clients with Retirement By Maggie Mulqueen, PhD on 5/17/22 - 1:47 PM

When I began my practice over thirty years ago, more than half of my clients were older than I was. Now, in my sixties, only a handful of my clients are older than I am. When I look back on my early work, I cringe at my rudimentary understanding of how aging changes one’s outlook and opportunities. What was once an academic understanding of this stage of life has morphed into a personal one.

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Recently, I have taken more of an interest in learning about what makes for a good retirement and how to help my clients manage this transition. My interest is fueled by the age of my clients and the impact of COVID-19 on people’s work lives. In addition, my husband, along with a number of our friends, recently retired, which brings the topic close to home.

Through my research, I’ve learned that there are two major paths for retirement. They are typically labeled the “cliff” versus the “transition.” There are positives and negatives about each one, but the path taken is not always a function of choice by the retiree. External circumstances, including the type of job one holds, play a major role in how one will cross the threshold into retirement.

The cliff version of retirement was more common when the mandatory age for retirement was 65. The advantage of this type of ending is that it is clear and expected. You can make plans for the days and weeks after. I have seen people prepare for the cliff by relocating, joining volunteer organizations, and/or planning long-awaited travel. One patient of mine, a physician, left the day after his retirement on a six-week cross-country road trip with his wife. What he wanted most was not having to plan or live by a schedule after years of being bound to a pager. After their adventure, he returned with a new perspective about how he wanted to spend the next chapter of his life, one he could never have conceptualized while he was fulfilling the demands of his job.

You can prepare if you know you are going cliff-jumping, but when the cliff appears unexpectedly due to illness or a layoff, it can easily lead to depression or anxiety. Another patient of mine was forced out of her job three years earlier than she expected due to a change in leadership at her company. As a single woman with no children, her work life doubled as a major component of her social life. To make matters worse, most of her friends were still working, so she suddenly found herself with empty days and no social contact. COVID-19 protocols exacerbated how isolated she became, and doing more things on Zoom was not an antidote to being home alone every day. Together we mourned an unceremonious end to her career and brainstormed how she could continue to feel relevant and engaged in the world.

The transition path, one most therapists in private practice seem to choose for themselves, allows for cutting back on one’s hours while still working in the same position. Not all careers are flexible in this way, and sometimes a decision to go part-time means losing more than just income, but stature in the workforce as well. The positive side of transitioning into retirement is that it allows one to try out new endeavors slowly and to ease into a different schedule. The risk is that a gradual leaving can feel more like fading out rather than having a capstone moment to acknowledge one’s work life.

Retirement is a phase of life and not a solitary moment in time. The retired clients I see who have fared the best have found a cohort group. Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, if health and finances are in order, then the next step is building community. Whether it’s meeting a walking partner or offering to read to young children, being counted, and counted upon, can help counteract depression and isolation.

Like most therapists in private practice, for me, deciding when to retire has always felt like a decision that would be in my control. But, now older and wiser, I have seen colleagues forced to retire unexpectedly either for personal health reasons or to become caretakers for loved ones. Unfortunately, I am also privy to a few rare cases where therapists did not retire soon enough and their performance at the end of their careers was substandard.

Sometimes clients ask me directly when I am planning to retire. They ask the question with a mix of curiosity and trepidation. I have promised them that unless there is a dramatic change in my health, I will give them a year’s notice. The depth of our work as therapists warrants allotting time for a thoughtful ending.

The pandemic has certainly impacted my thinking about when I will retire. On the positive side, the ability to work remotely has changed the calculus around some of the aspects I like least about my work (commuting, for example) and made the thought of working longer a real possibility. On the negative side, the current mental health crisis makes finding appropriate referrals for clients right now seem impossible, which by default extends my sense of responsibility to my clients.

Thinking about my own retirement, I am aware that unlike other life experiences that have shaped my work as a clinician, ironically, I will not be able to draw on my personal experience after the fact to the benefit of my clients. Whenever my last day of work is, I hope it will be my choice. Turning out the lights and saying goodbye will not be easy. Despite that reality, I hope that the way I prepare both my clients and myself for the end of our work together will be an opportunity for growth for each of us.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections, COVID-19 Blogs