Finding our identity in later life

In my therapy work with older adults, many are thinking about retirement. The process of retiring is a period of transition and it invariably impacts our relationships. It is one of the most challenging adjustments we ever make.



Retirement is often portrayed in the media as a time when there is endless spare time to do the things we want after years of having to go to work to build the life we need. Whilst there is often an emphasis on making financial provision in retirement, there appears to be less focus on the effect it will have on our relationships - both with ourselves and with others. Relationships change over time - just as we do. That is a normal part of life. However significant events such as retirement can be life-changing and often put a strain on relationships.

In my therapy room, when we are exploring the end of the working life, I often encourage clients to reflect on how they have dealt with past significant changes. If we are prepared for the impending transition (as much as we can be through reflection and self-awareness) then we give ourselves a better chance of navigating the next part of our journey - with less stress and anxiety. This reflective work is important given that many more people are living in retirement for many years. There is a clear need to find a way forward at a time of life when responsibilities are - rightly - less to the fore and give us time to focus on ourselves.

Retirement and mental health

When working with those who have retired, I often find they have not considered how retirement might affect their mental and emotional health. There seems to be an assumption that life would trundle on much as it always has. However, the reality is that many people I work with feel lost and vulnerable once their working life ends. Too often, retirement is accompanied by increasing chronic health conditions which add to a sense of low self-esteem, loss of confidence, isolation, and becoming increasingly dependent on offspring who themselves are juggling the demands of life.

For many people life is busy. For the retiree, time can seem both long and short. John, in his 70s, is someone who is experiencing this unfamiliar experience. When he retired he cared for his wife. After she died, he sold up and moved in with his daughter and her family. His health unexpectedly deteriorated and his mobility was severely impaired. Intergenerational living has proved to be a mixed blessing for the household, with John increasingly withdrawn.

Cast adrift from his workmates and relocating, he felt forgotten and lost. He looked to his daughter (in her 30s) and her young family for time and interaction. I felt he was missing the company of his generation, and feeling a loss of confidence he didn't have the motivation to make a new start. He was a man of many interests who had now lost interest.

During a joint therapy session with father and daughter, concern was expressed about the risk of John's mental health declining. His days are long he said. At the same time, he recognised having reached this stage of his life, time was also short. This session was useful as it provided an opportunity for each to express how they felt about their situation without blame or judgment and find a way forward.

Transitioning from work to retirement

Often, a transition from work to retirement is not an easy one. Even for those who report a smooth change, clients can return to therapy years after they have retired. Sam, a retired NHS nurse discovered, during a therapy session, that she had become the 'go-to' person for every hospital appointment and care needed for all the family. She sounded resentful until she became aware that her own needs were being squeezed out and there was a risk that her own retirement plans would not materialise. She recognised she needed to build a new identity.

Others find they want to do different things from their significant other. Perhaps this has been the case for many years, but now the great space which retirement brings forces clients to take a reality check. Clients can have unrealistic expectations when it comes to retirement, so I encourage honesty and open communication focusing on needs, wants and compromise.

One of the key features of our later years is the relationships we build and whatever type of relationship we have with our significant other, retirement will impact. Not all couples retire at the same time, so there can be a long period of adjustment for one person, and then a further period of adjustment for the other. The impact may not be a positive one. People take early retirement for a myriad of reasons and the significant other could be working for a further ten years down the line before they retire during which time the relationship could be under extreme strain or even come to an end. A change in dynamics and how we live our lives can cause tension. Many retirees take on part-time work, set up a business, or undertake volunteering. From my practice, it appears that men struggle more with the territorial shift and loss of their work persona than women who are used to juggling different life roles.

Working with older adults suggests that adjusting to retirement works well when we plan. I encourage those considering retirement (say, within the next 10 years) to think (amongst other things) about their relationships. Having something in common is good and can be built on before retirement happens. Equally, each of us needs to have our own interests and to factor in time apart. Finding a new purpose and building social circles outside the relationship can make it stronger.

Gillian, a single woman in her 60s continues to work full time. However, as her mother is now facing palliative care she wants to spend as much time as possible with her. In therapy, we discussed the choices open to Gillian. Part-time work could help her manage her emotional stress levels thus easing her anxiety. This decision may also help her, further down the line to approach her eventual retirement in a way which is gradual and manageable. Facing such a crisis at this time of life often means energy levels are depleted. Therapy can help a client like Gillian clarify her thinking and sort her priorities thus helping her to protect her mental health. 

Working with those in their pre-retirement years it helps to explore how they can learn to find who they are. For the person in the therapy chair, post-retirement life can seem confusing and scary as they contemplate facing the world on their own. We often allow ourselves to be defined by other people or things. Is it any surprise that when retirement hits we feel rudderless, untethered, all at sea? When we do feel like this, our unhappiness becomes apparent and our friendships may no longer be a source of support and joy.

Finding oneself takes time. There is no fixed timescale, and it does take work. The good news is it is possible to discover who we are. Several of my clients have entered retreats or therapy to reflect on their lives. Until we discover our authentic selves, we cannot be free to move on.

When clients such as Mike say they feel 'stuck' and cannot think of anything that pleases them, I suggest they reflect on early childhood and recall what they enjoyed when they had no responsibilities. I encouraged Mike to do a timeline and identify the major events in his life and how he dealt with them. This can bring up memories - some happy, some sad - and with guidance and reassurance this can be a worthwhile exercise to reflect and develop his self-awareness.

I urge clients to learn from the past and make peace with it. They can then put together a list and identify what options are open to them. I encourage them to think big, to quieten the negative voice which may be holding them back and to focus on the most important person in their life, i.e. the one in the mirror.

The older adult has a lot to offer in a way which is fulfilling and worthwhile. I encourage my clients to see this time of life as a reward for all those years of striving and being 'there' for everyone else. At the same time, we can be good role models for others who feel lost, despondent or 'over the hill'.

Rather than feel lost we can search for something we can get lost in, something that gives life meaning and purpose. Therapy can help us find it.

The names mentioned in this article have been changed.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Walsall, Staffordshire, WS6
Written by Lyn Reed, MA,MBACP,Pro.Adv.Dip.PC, Pgd.Cert. in Supervision
Walsall, Staffordshire, WS6

I offer a supportive, confidential therapy service especially for those living with anxiety, stress and depression. Connection is the key to providing good therapy. I have a down-to-earth approach to my work. My focus is on the client -the most important person in the room. Good therapy can help us to discover renewed hope as we move forward.

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