The emotional side of retirement
By John Archer, The Montreal Gazette
August 23, 2012

An interview with Hani Kafoury, MA, Psychology.

1. In your opinion, which types of people are the ones best equipped to transition into retirement and which are the worst equipped?

When working with people experiencing major life changes I look at their way of tackling life in general, their experience with previous transitions, and their overall preparedness for the transition they are currently facing, such as retirement.

The individual psychological and emotional makeup is key indicator as to the way people tackle retirement. People will tackle retirement, or any major life event, in a consistent fashion and in line with their personality.

The transition literature identifies different personality types and how they are likely to deal with retirement. The “mature” types accept themselves in a realistic fashion and exhibit little neurotic conflicts – they typically take old age as a given and ease into retirement without many issues; the “rocking-chair” types are typically more passive in their outlook on things and actually welcome retirement as the opportunity of being free of responsibilities; the “armored” type who have difficulty facing passivity or helplessness in old age are typically seen as very active which may be a defense against the fear of growing old. For those who are less-well adjusted, there may be anger directed either externally or internally for having failed to reach their professional goals and ambitions. They will either blame others, themselves, or both for the shortfall. So when working with people undergoing transitions, I am more interested in the process rather than content – that is, I want to highlight to them their psychological and emotional dynamic rather than just deal with the specifics of their retirement circumstances. I focus on the cognitive and behavioral aspect of what is being presented and share that insight with them so that they can work through the transition in a more constructive manner.

There is an important distinction to be made between “change” and “transition”. Change is what happens around us – it’s the day, for instance, we actually leave our workplace…for good; it’s an event that we witness and has a start and an end. Usually change begins with a gain (freedom, control, etc.). Transition on the other hand, is an internal event; it’s what is referred to as a “psychological reorientation”, and it usually entails a loss (relationships, power, control, predictability, routine, sense of competence, etc.) and throws one into a three-phase transition process of “ending” (letting go of what was), a “neutral zone” (an in-between period where the old way is gone but where the new one has not yet been defined), and finally a “new beginning” (new attitudes, feelings, behaviors, etc.). So retirement, or any other major life change, puts one into that transition process – which would explain why two people may experience the same change (ex. retirement) quite differently and at different pace (transition).

Then, there is the whole psychological preparation for retirement. This transition process can occur months, if not years, prior to actually being retired. The first step is to recognize retirement as a real future possibility; to then plan one’s future accordingly; and to make the formal decision to retire at a certain time and in a certain way. Overall, it involves one’s transition and therefore detachment from one’s work role as well as from the physical and relational ties in one’s workplace.

So while all these variables determine how well someone is “equipped” to deal with retirement, one cannot ignore the financial aspect - our current financial situation, our anticipated future post-retirement income and our desired lifestyle goals as a “work retiree”. These considerations will also have a bearing on how “equipped” we feel to undergo retirement.

2. Is it those who have developed healthy and active interests outside of their work environment who are best equipped and those who have been traditionally "workaholics" with little interest outside the workplace that are less equipped?
It’s not that straightforward. It all depends on how one currently sees themselves. If one’s identity and self-image is associated in good part with the work task, then trouble is on the horizon! They may struggle when transitioning out of their current job and career and finding themselves faced with the void – practical and psychological - that work has left.
If that is the case, I like to work through with the client what has really ended for them (sense of being valued, power, influence, security, relationships, etc.) and how they are willing to mourn the loss, reframe it and ultimately replace it so to reinvent themselves. But before they can achieve this, they need to regain control of their life (especially if they were forced into retirement and feel victimized), gain understanding (make sense and learn something about their current experience), further develop their support system to help them through the transition, and revive a new sense of purpose and meaning going forward.

So even if the “workaholics” had developed other interests outside of work, it does not necessarily mean that they will find transitioning into retirement easier. Workaholics may have been avoiding something in their life; they may also be the competitive types who must “win” or excel in whatever they engage in. They may, as we’ve seen with the “armor” type, use business as a defense mechanism to cope with their fears of growing old and their own finality. That being said, those who have cultivated other interests outside of work have at their disposal more enjoyable activities to delve into during their retirement years and perhaps even develop them into remunerated activities. Filming and film editing was one of my passions as a teenager and young adult; so at 51 I bought myself semi-professional video equipment and set out to climb Kilimanjaro and make a documentary about it. I am currently in the process of editing the documentary intended for mid-lifers looking for travel adventures. So hobbies can come in handy later in life!

3. How about those who never retire? Do they really love their work so much that they go to the office every day or do they generally have little else that interests them?
There is a saying that goes something like this “Do the work you love and you will not have to work one day in your life.” I’ve worked for a business owner in the past, who was 80 years old and still came in every morning to manage his billion dollar company. When I asked him why he is still working (even if was financially many times independent), he just said “This is not work!” So I think there is some truth about people who do work they are passionate about (and based on research they represent less than 10% of the workforce) and who may be less keen on retiring from doing “what they are”. They may very well have other interests outside of work, but work does provide them with a great deal of pleasure. I say there is nothing wrong with that if they are happy and if they are leading a balanced life. Another example is Mr. Jean-Coutu, nearing 80 years old, owner of the pharmacy banner in Quebec and who, allegedly, is very much active in his business. So the more one is passionate about one’s work the less likely the “work-leisure” dichotomy and the less likely one is keen on retiring.

Retirement may be turning into an old fashioned concept. We may want to retire from a specific job but not necessarily from working altogether! I am myself in that situation today – after a long career as a Marketing and Communications executive – consulting, counseling, coaching, training people and organizations in effectively dealing with major change is not work for me! So who wants to retire from doing “who we are”?

4. How does a couple prepare themselves for retirement? Suddenly their time together increases dramatically and this can cause a problem.
This is a huge transition for both partners and requires a period of adjustment that will require dealing effectively with loss of how things were prior to one of the partners, or both retiring, and then embarking into a “no-man’s land” through which the couple’s lifestyle is gradually remodeled.

In addition to the individual differences I discussed earlier, there are also the couple differences to contend with in any transitional process. The ease of the transition depends largely on the relational dynamic of the couple prior to the new retirement reality. There are three such dynamics: If their relationship is viewed as a “husband-wife” one, where intimacy is in the forefront, they will continue focusing on each other’s wants and needs and adapt to the new situation with that in mind; if it is viewed as a “parent-child” one, one of the partners will continue to assume the role of parent and the other that of child (behaving in a submissive manner), the “parent” is likely to “organize” the post-retirement lifestyle; finally, if the couple is more of the “associates type” where they relate to each other mainly as friends, they are likely to continue getting the most pleasure in activities that lie outside the husband-wife intimacy (taking care of children, being involved in book clubs, having golf partners, etc.). So while retirement – like with other life changes such as the birth of the first child, the death of a parent, etc. – may put the couple into transition mode for a certain period of time, the way the couple deals with it will be consistent with how they’ve dealt with past life changes, based on their individual and relational dynamic.

5. Any suggestions on how to adapt to each other? And how about relations with other family members during retirement? Do the retirees sometimes get too involved in others’ lives?
This all depends on one’s expectations and other’s expectations of the retiree. Retirees may be expected to spend more time at home with their spouse or with their family, they may be expected to spend more time in leisure pursuits or develop new hobbies, or develop new relationships. What is important here is not to “cave in” under all these expectations and determine one’s own view of how you want to live the rest of your life. Once you know what you want, you are in a better position to express it to others and negotiate what needs negotiation. Trying to please all you will end up pleasing no one. Whether it is coaching or counseling, the goal is to encourage people to be themselves and to be accountable for the life they choose. This is not being selfish, it is being responsible.

Whenever a couple is going through a major transition they need to take their time to understand what they are actually losing in the process, arrange for temporary solutions or structures, slow down (don’t get busy for the sake of busyness), take care of themselves individually and one another in little ways (find the little things that have not changed and that bring them pleasure), see the positive in the change that has put them in transition mode, find someone to talk to (not necessarily advice but the opportunity to vent feelings and thoughts), think of the transition as a transformational opportunity for personal growth.

6. How do you council those who lose their sense of self-worth in retirement?

That feeling that they may not be contributing to their society in a meaningful way like they might have been doing while working?
Our culture puts a premium on productivity which is linked to bringing about monetary success and professional prestige. Retirement is often associated with lack of productivity and is therefore devalued. When people learn to associate work with productivity and productivity with self-worth that’s where trouble begins.

It is important to establish for the people that consult with me that while they may do “who they are” they are NOT only what they do. That their self-worth is not predicated on what they do or what they have, but on whom they intrinsically are – human beings (not human doers). This notion comes into stark contradiction with what you and I and the rest of us see and hear day in and day out through the media – that who you are depends on what you do and what you have. So one must find ways to assert the being-ness part as a way to strengthen self-worth.

For most retirees though, the lack of self-worth goes beyond the “doing part”. It has also very much to do with various work-related networks or community they had belonged to prior to retirement (e.g. peers, union, professional associations, company’s bowling team, etc.). If there is little or no social network outside of work, the perceived loss is huge – a sense of not belonging to something bigger than oneself; this loss may bring upon feelings of uselessness and worthlessness. We are social animals and a sense of belongingness is crucial in our striving for significance. So replacing the old work community and reactivating the current one, now that we have more time, is an important step in transitioning effectively into retirement.

7. What are some of the leading causes of depression that you encounter from those in retirement?
Whether it is retirement, job loss or career reorientation, when people transition it is not uncommon that they feel discouraged – and this could lead to clinical depression. They are discouraged because they feel they are in an unfamiliar place in which they feel uncomfortable and out of control. They also often make negative predictions about the future as they do not feel confident in their ability to shape it favorably or in a meaningful way. The key here is to build up their self-efficacy and reframe things in a more constructive, assured and optimistic manner.

From a transition process a retiree will go through various stages in dealing with the end of work as they knew it. They will first disengage from the context that was familiar to them (leaving the workplace), dismantle (going from “we” to “I”), dis-identify (not sure who they are anymore), disenchant (disappointment that can turn into disillusion), and finally feel disoriented (confusion and emptiness). That’s the time where one needs to dig in for inner resources and/or look for support to avoid falling into discouragement or depression. It is well established that when confronted with a major loss most people experience a predictable pattern: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and in most cases accepting (which are not necessarily linear events). The intensity and length of each phase is predicated on the perceived significance of the loss and one’s coping abilities and resources.

8. Do retirees often become shut-ins? Anti-social? Does alcoholism increase?
These are not exclusive to retirees as you can appreciate. Being shut-in, anti-social or resorting to any substance abuse is rarely the direct result of external factors, in this case a major life change. The difficulty one encounters as a retiree comes from the inability of letting go of the person one used to be to the person one needs to become. So we are dealing again with the transition process of dealing with the loss and redefining one’s new role. So some of the things that need to be explored with a retiree who may be “shutting in” are things like “What is it time for me to let go of in my life right now? What are the possibilities out there that are waiting to make their entrance? Etc.

The good news is that, developmentally, there is a gradual shift that occurs as one moves past 40 in that one becomes less motivated by the need to demonstrate competence and become more motivated by the need to find personal meaning, in work as in life. In that sense, retiring can be perceived as a positive experience to look forward to. As a matter of fact some studies show that less than one-third of the retired population experience difficulty in adjusting to retirement with only 22% of these saying they miss their previous job. This comes as no surprise since we know that less than 10% of people say that they are passionate about their work. For most then “thank goodness, that part of my life is over!” may be the motivation to moving on!

In the final analysis, it is not retirement, or any other major change, that dictates how we react. Alfred Adler, a world renowned psychotherapist, coined it the psychology of use (not of possession): “It is not what life gives you that is important; it is what you do with what life gives you that is”. I find this a very empowering notion; it gives us all a wide range of choices and possibilities when confronted with life’s many changes and challenges.

9. How important is it to develop hobbies or sports before retirement or even during retirement?
Please see my response to question no. 2

10. How important is it to keep mentally active? How important is keeping socially active?
As they say “what we don’t use, we lose”. So it goes without saying that keeping mentally, physically, spiritually, and socially active are essential to a balanced and more rewarding living and that if any one of these are compromised we are thrown out of keel. A compromise as little as spraining an ankle speaks volume as to how equilibrium in all other spheres of our life can instantly be broken. So leading a reasonably balanced life is likely to help when we encounter major transitions, such as retiring from the workforce – but hopefully not from life!

11. What is the ideal lag between actually retiring and the decision to retire, if one had the choice? A year, six months? Three months?
I don’t believe there is a timeframe that fits all. For all the reasons we’ve considered so far, different people will be comfortable with different time frames. Experts in the field of retirement will tell you that the more time one takes to plan the better.

While this is a truism, I believe that what really matters is to have a knowing of your life’s vision and mission. I practice defining this with my clients (whether they are close to retirement or not). Most find it very difficult as they get bogged down with the “how” I will get there. The paradox is that if the “what” I want out of life is clear, the “how” usually appears in strange and unexpected ways. It is not esoteric; it is just the cybernetic function of the brain which works best with a clear goal to be reached or a clear problem to be solved. So the short answer is it’s not just about “when” but also about “what”.

12. Do you sometimes advise people not to retire if you feel they are not ready?
It is not for me to feel anything. As a matter of fact, I don’t see my role as “helping them” do anything. I see my role as taking them on an exploratory journey where they will find their own answers. When I do counselling or coaching I am more of a guide than a teacher. Whether they want to embark on the journey or not, whether they are ready to get temporarily lost along the way, learn from the experience, move on and get to their own destination, is entirely up to them.

When I summited Kilimanjaro in 2009, we had guides, porters, food and water… and the highest mountain in Africa; the rest was for us to figure out – our pace, our focus, our determination.

Someone once said: “Owing to our mistaken social customs we put old people on the shelf often while they are still full of activity. One should never advise [anyone] at the age of sixty, seventy, or even eighty to retire, since it is much easier to continue in one’s occupation than to change one’s whole scheme of life.” That was Alfred Adler. The year? Circa 1907.

13. Do you sometimes advise people who are retired to go back to work, if you feel they are not ready and that seems to be the solution?
Please see my answer to question 12.

So being “ready” for retirement or a career reorientation is a personal matter – I tell my clients whether you feel you are ready, or you’re not, you are right. What I am interested in however, assuming the retirement date has not been imposed on them, are the reasons they may feel they are ready or not. The important thing is that they are retiring (or not) for the “right” reasons – because that’s what they want. If it is apparent that their decision is fear-based or externally-based (e.g. their spouse would want them, etc.) then we work with that.

14. And anything else you might want to add.
After 27 years in the pharmaceutical industry, half of which was spent as a senior executive, I decided to go on my own and launch my private practice that would specialize in guiding organizations and individuals more effectively deal with change through effective transition.

This decision had been almost 8 years in the making and to prepare me for my career reorientation. While working full-time as an executive and raising a family, I set out to complete my MA in Psychology (which took me a good six years to do), get formal training in the area of transition, in leadership coaching and a certification in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (which is invaluable to the work I do). My “retirement” from the corporate world meant that I had to let go of and deal with several losses: the security of a substantial bi-weekly paycheck, the power and influence of leading hundreds of people throughout my career, some of the personal and professional relationships I had, etc. In that eight-year period, and today at 54, I was able to “reinvent” my professional identity into work that I am passionate about. There was no looking back!
So whether I train people and leaders in organizations to more effectively manage the people side of change (something most organizations don’t do much of) to achieve real change, or individuals on a one-on-one basis to better cope and thrive on personal change in their life – it’s all about transition and the psychological reorientation people go through when faced with major change – whether it is merger, an acquisition, a new IT system or process…or retirement.

15. Do you as a professional offer pre-retirement services to firms or individuals to test if they are ready or to guide them accordingly?
I do not. However, I am a certified Myers-Briggs Type Indicator administrator and coach and will use this personality inventory to work through my clients’ career progression and reorientation. I coach people in Montreal but also across Canada and the U.S.

16. Summary/take-away


  • Since my psychological work is based on the “unity of the individual” premise, the way one approaches life is the way on approaches retirement and all other life’s events.
  • Any major change event will trigger a 3-phase transition process (although some transition pre-empt and trigger an event) which involves dealing with an “ending”, crossing an in-between phase called the “Neutral Zone” and arriving at the “New Beginning”. The more we are experienced with transitions, the more resilience we exhibit with new transitions.
  • To retire from work does not mean we must retire from life. If work was our life, this transition period will be helpful in asking ourselves questions that will put things back in a more balanced perspective. Also, in any transitional process the end of something does NOT mean the end of everything. Remember that we are much more than what we do.
  • Retirement may be a pass? concept - we may decide to retire from a job, but not from working.
  • While we all strive for significance and belongingness, do not define those only by what you contribute at work – look at how else you can contribute in life and into your immediate and larger community.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you when the “best” time to retire is; you need to make that choice for the right reasons, and these reasons belong to you. If you are forced into retirement by your employer than you need to process the loss and then determine how you want to live the rest of your life and just live it!
  • Being in a couple is often about negotiating each other’s’ needs and wants – it is no different during retirement and the transition is forces couples into.