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Retirement: It's Not Just the Money

Posted By Matthew P. Martin, Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Several years ago, a friend of mine went to see her primary care physician for her blood pressure. After reading her vital signs, the physician was concerned and began asking my friend about exercise and eating habits. “Yes, I exercise regularly and watch what I eat” my friend said. “Well, your blood pressure is much higher than usual. What else is going on in your life right now?” “Nothing much. My husband and I are planning a trip but that’s about it”.

The physician thought for a moment and then asked “Isn’t your retirement coming up?” That question shook my friend like a Polaroid picture. She suddenly realized how worried she was about retiring from a job that meant so much to her. “Yes, it is! And I am so scared to stop working.” She and the physician discussed some options for preparing for retirement and then ended the visit. My friend eventually retired not just once, but three times in total. She loved working so much it took several down shifts for her to become fully retired.

Retirement involves the loss of two characteristics: Income and status 

Retirement is a double-edged sword: it can be absolutely exciting or just plain terrifying for older adults. Most people think retirement, and all the devilish details that come with it, is all about money. People who think that way are either financial advisors or too young to vote. It’s more than just about the Benjamins. Retirement involves the loss of two very important work characteristics: income and status. Can both of these losses affect health? You bet. 


Now, please fasten your seatbelt. I am about to throw down some fast facts on retirement. 

Did you know?

The average American works 90,000 hours during a lifetime but spends 10 hours planning for retirement1

The over-85 age group is the fastest-growing segment of the population2

About 40% of Americans between 51-60 years of age have no pension income other than Social Security3

The median age of retirement is 60.6 years3

Those with poorer health retire earlier, especially African American men3

Unhealthy women tend to work longer because of inadequate income3

One out of four men aged 60-65 return to work after retiring3

Retirement is a relatively new concept. Before 1935, when Social Security was inaugurated, retirement was rarely considered by most Americans. In 1950, 45% of Americans 65 and older were working. Today, about 20% in that age group are working4. Even though retirement is more common today, it is NOT common for individuals and couples to be physically and mentally prepared for it. It’s even rarer for health professionals to inquire about a patient’s readiness for or adjustment to retirement. When is the last time a doctor asked you if you were emotionally prepared to give up your identity as a full-time worker for retirement?



Retirement is a many-splendored thing, fraught with opportunities and challenges. Some of the challenges include real health risks like increases in illness conditions (e.g., blood pressure, diabetes, and congestive heart failure), difficulty with activities of daily living, and a decline in mental health5. Some of these are attributed to the lifestyle changes that accompany swapping an office chair for a beach chair (i.e., decreased activity, fewer social interactions) and because many people retire DUE to health reasons. 

There are also several psychosocial challenges that come with getting off the work treadmill including identity change, questions of self-worth, limited social activity, asynchronous retirements in marriage, and more6. Here are some things you might hear an individual say:

“I was a supervisor for almost thirty years but now I’m fiddling around in the garage all day”

“My last job was creating new chemical solvents for Texaco Chemical. Retirement has left me without much purpose”

“I’ve enjoyed my retirement for the past two years by traveling and learning to paint. Now what do I do?”

“All of my friends are still working. Can I still spend time with them?”

Here are some things you might hear a spouse or partner say:

“She doesn’t have time to enjoy my retirement with me”

“I have things of my own to do but he just follows me around all day”

“I love having him home but now he tries to tell me how to do the laundry”

Delaying retirement age may lessen or postpone poor health outcomes 

Retirement is especially challenging when it’s unexpected due to health, family, or work pressures because then retirement becomes a necessity instead of a celebration. Moreover, retiring early is not always ideal. Delaying retirement age may lessen or postpone poor health outcomes, improve wellbeing, and reduce health care utilization7. Several protective factors can help individuals smooth the transition into those golden years including marriage, social support, physical activity, and part-time work7. 



Is money important for retirement? Without a doubt. AND (notice the absence of “but”) so is health including emotional and social wellbeing. Should a patient invest in a nest egg? Yes! Should she also mentally prepare for the huge changes in identity, status, and social activity? Absolutely. AND (I seem to have misplaced that word “but”) health professionals can play a big role.

Here are 7 things health professionals can do to support patients planning for or adjusting to retirement:

1.      Ask about retirement plans

What are your plans for retirement?

What have you and your family discussed or decided?

What concerns you about retirement?

What excites you about retirement?

2.      Ask about retirement adjustment

How are you adjusting to retirement?

What has gone well? What has not gone well?

How can I help you adjust even better?

3.      Collaborate with family friends, and other health professionals

4.      Conduct a thorough assessment of health risks, social support, and mental health

5.      Suggest a self-help book

What Color is Your Parachute?

How to Love Your Retirement

6.      Refer to financial advisor or life coach

7.      Watch out for unexpected retirements. These are the patients who may need the most attention. Love them, support them, and connect them with resources.


1.      Cavanaugh, J. (1997). Adult Development and Aging. Albany, NY: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

2.      The Center for Mature Consumer Studies.

3.      Foos, P.W., & Clark, M.C. (2008). Human Aging. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon

4.      U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics

5.      Dave, D., Rashad, I., & Spasojevic, J. (2007). The effects of retirement on physical and mental health outcomes. Andrew Young School of Policy Studies: Research Paper Series, October(2007), 1-47.

6.      Cox, H., Parks, T., Hammonds, A., & Sekhon, G.(2001). Work/retirement choices and lifestyle patterns of older Americans. Journal of Applied Sociology, 18(1), 131-149.

7.      Dave, D., Rashad, I., & Spasojevic, J. (2007). The effects of retirement on physical and mental health outcomes. Andrew Young School of Policy Studies: Research Paper Series, October(2007), 1-47.

Matt Martin, PhD, LMFT, is Blog Editor for the Collaborative Family Healthcare Association. When he is not blogging or editing he teaches behavioral science to family medicine residents at the Duke/SR-AHEC residency program. Interested in writing for the blogs? Email Matt at

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