Retirement is when you reap what you have been sowing all these years. Only this article is about family and not about money. Far too often I have interviewed individuals approaching retirement and their biggest concern is that they have spent so much time and energy on their career and planning for their financial future that they have neglected to nurture one of their most valuable assets. Family.
Ask yourself about your relationships with your family. Getting older can become a very lonely business if we do not shore up damaged or even severed ties with family. Research has proven that while many who retire without a family find creative ways to get the support they need, it is infinitely easier to mend and enhance the family relationships that you already have.
Basically, families are the most efficient economic unit known to modern society. Without governmental safety nets, families are there to help financially. They are also there for the emotional support, love, and even friendship. Young and old benefit from the emotional sustenance provided by the family unit. A strong and unified family is also in a position to provide necessary love and care for their elderly members. Sadly, this is only true if time has been invested over the years in this economic unit. By taking the time to nurture family, the benefits reaped in later life are myriad.
How Healthy is Your Family?
If you are married, do you have a good relationship with your spouse? If you are a parent, are you close to your children emotionally? How about their spouses or partners? Do you find time to be a routine part of the lives of your grandchildren? Look laterally. What about your own brothers, sisters, and cousins? Do you stay connected with them? What about family members who live far away? What effort do you make to stay in touch with them?
As you take this assessment, it is likely that you will discover that there are a few members of your family who you are very close to, and there will be others to whom you have not spoken in years.
Do not worry. It really is never too late to pick up the threads of that family relationship and improve just about all of your relationships.
Granted, we are very busy people. Most of us follow the rules by focusing our time on being productive members of society. Unfortunately, this precludes spending much time on distant or strained relationships. We always think that there will be enough time later in life to fix those problems. The opposite is actually truer. The longer the time of a strained relationship, the more difficult it will be to repair it.
Ways to Improve Family Function
Start first with your own children. Make a point of spending time with each of them individually. Most young people today are smart enough to see that a lot of money or compensating "toys" really do not take the place of you in their lives. The truth of all research is that absentee parenting is no effective. By being a parent who fails to adequately nurture your children, you will have a similar payback later in life. They will then fail to nurture you. By their early teens, your children will have pretty well established their relationship with you, and unless you take the time and energy required to fix it, this will be your relationship from now on.
The easiest remedy is merely to spend time with your kids. Can you adjust your work schedule so that you are able to come home early enough to have dinner with your entire family a few days a week? Can you work from home? Can you shorten your workweek and spend an extra day at home?
Granted, if you have not been spending much time with your kids, this will seem strange at first. You have to set the example. Ask if you can go to the game with them. Initially they may seem uncomfortable sharing their time with you, but as you continue to make the effort, you will find that you have much in common, and an invitation from your kids to join them will be much more willingly given. Remember, what time you give your kids now will be returned to you in your retirement years.
If your children are older, perhaps even have families themselves, consider a family vacation. Look into vacation home rentals where you can rent a large bed and breakfast or two adjoining beach houses for a month and have the families come and go as their schedules permit. This will give everyone time to enjoy the company of family members in a unique way. By spending a longer period together, relationships that have been strained have an opportunity to be addressed and perhaps even a healing process begun.
The truth is, without effort, your family relationship problems will only continue. Habits are difficult to break and strained relationships take on the nature of habitual behavior. By attempting various tactics, you will help to change such behavior and improve family relationships all around.
Developing Stronger Family Units
Smaller families will need to cast a wider net. I have an aunt and uncle who live about four hundred miles from me. They never had children, and so they enjoyed my brothers and sisters vicariously. As luck would have it, my brother's job transferred him to the same town where my aunt and uncle now live. They have created a "family" unit and spend all holidays and other celebration times together.
In fact, we will talk later about moving after retirement. One thing to consider is whether you will be moving far away from established family units. Stronger family units develop when the members are involved and included. By moving away, your ability to stay involved and included can be compromised. You also might consider moving to family after retirement. A friend of mine has a daughter who has been asking her to move to Fort Collins. While it is a big change from New Jersey, my friend is considering the move. Her property taxes are likely to be greatly reduced, and she will be moving closer to family.
Maximize Moments with your Spouse
Studies have proven that if you have a good marriage at the age of 50, you will have a similarly good marriage at the age of 80. The converse is also true. The relationship you have with your spouse or your life-long partner is the most intimate and important of all your family relationships. It is terribly easy to take this relationship for granted because of work pressures, the needs of your children and friends, and perhaps you have even dealt with an ailing and aging parent.
Despite all these interruptions in your life, keep those romantic fires burning. How?
- Be each other's best friend.
- Make a daily, honest commitment to one another.
- Determine to be part of one another's life.
- Share values.
- Share interests.
- Share friends.
- Laugh together.
- Try to see from one another's perspective.
- Share a community involvement such as church, youth, homeless or other need.
- Talk about your relationship.
- Keep things positive and in perspective.
- Do things together.
- Be cooperative and open to ideas.
- Share your dream about a romantic relationship in your old age.
Here is another area where planning is a seriously good idea. It used to be that when the husband in the family retired, so too did his spouse. It was the accepted norm in society. However, things have changed in recent years.
Many women in their fifties have just reached the point in their careers where they are finally feeling that they are making a difference and feel fulfilled. They are truly not interested in retiring just because their husband retires. This can create some difficult psychological issues. Both partners have to adjust to the changing lifestyle that retirement will bring to their relationship. There will be a far better outcome if this is discussed in detail well in advance of either partner retiring.
Day to day life can be out of sync, and goals can be diametrically opposed. For example, the one who retires may have dreams of daily golfing, and periodic travel trips. He is not likely to consider taking on the household chores of cooking and cleaning, whereas his wife might consider it his turn at becoming the household engineer. Again, only with a great deal of communication will this period pass without great strife.
By recognizing that retirement of one spouse can bring about a lifestyle change, both husband and wife will be better served. Too often, such seemingly trivial aspects of retirement can mean the difference between enjoying this phase of your life or hating it.
During working years, men usually do not have much personal space in the home. You have a portion of the closet allocated for your clothing, and a drawer or two for socks, and so forth. Beyond that, your defined space ends. It is intermingled with the rest of the family space, and since they usually spend more time in the home, what you once thought of as yours has been appropriated. Once men retire, this lack of space becomes a problem. Men often identify themselves by their previous work title and the space they once occupied while on the job. It could have been an entire office; it could have been an eighteen-inch square on the corner of a desk. Size is not the issue. Ownership is. Once this personal space has been removed, men can frequently feel displaced. Discuss the need for a personal space in the home before you retire. Set it up ahead of time so that you can retire to this space when you are dealing with conflicting emotions that often accompany retirement.
What is Friendship?
Any social relationship typically is based on proximity and convenience. They arise out of our daily activities, school, church, and work. Look at your own social circle. Those who you consider friends have changed from being merely an acquaintance based on proximity and handiness to something closer. Some of these connections can actually last a lifetime.
The danger of forming friendships based on these criteria is that once you no longer work or go to school the pool of acquaintances dries up. Social isolation is a terrifying experience and can paralyze your efforts to make new friends if you are not prepared for it.
Most social situations in our lives promote opportunities to meet people. Then the retirement phase of our life hits and we are not sure what happened. Fortunately, you will take the friend and family relationships you have already created into retirement with you. However, unless you begin an active search, the social opportunities you used to enjoy will no longer be available. Face it, once you leave work, most of your acquaintances there will remain a memory of your past.
Friendships are based on several criteria. The first is a bonding relationship, one where you have a sense of connection with someone and with whom you share a number of interests and values. These friends are often called friends of the heart and you are likely to stay connected with such friends for a long time. The second criteria of friendship are those who can provide you with information. Many times these friends are not close friends, they have information that you need, or a skill that you can use, and are often friendships that are initiated by a shared interest. In retirement, you will make good use of both sorts of friends.
Friends from our youth, our childhood, know us in ways only our family will, and sometimes even better than our family. Such friends are truly golden, and keeping those friendships alive and active require some effort. It is even possible that you have had such friendships, and have allowed them to lapse. This is not always your fault. Life gets very busy, and with the demands of work and raising a family, there is little time to nurture such old friendships.
The next time you have an opportunity to attend a school, work, or other sort of reunion, get up and go. Do not allow your new shyness at being retired interfere. In fact, it is even a very good idea to arrange your own sort of reunion. You will enjoy the planning of it, and you will have a very large stake in seeing that your mini-reunion actually happens. Such friendships are truly made of gold.
The truth about making friends is that we are truly adept at making friends early in our lives, but much past the age of 40, we have many good reasons to avoid that particular skill. We are busy with work, with our children, and even with our spouse. As stated in the previous section, reconnecting with old friends is a terrific idea, but it is one that is limited by its very nature. Once you have contacted all your old friends, you are at a dead-end.
It is time for you to remember the true art of making new friends. This is a skill that needs to be nurtured or possibly even re-learned, if it has been a while since you have made a new friend. Try some of the following suggestions for making new friends.
- Find people with a common interest. Good places to look are church groups, hobbies, crafts, and outdoor activities. Friendships that are based on a common interest are more likely to last.
- Work part-time. There are quite a number of retired individuals who have chosen to return to work part-time so that they can stay connected with people. Working does keep your mind sharp and provides you with many opportunities to meet new people, especially now that you are looking for such opportunities.
- Join a group. This was once a big part of American life, but with the advent of technology, much of our leisure time is now spent in isolation, on the internet, or gaming, or merely watching television. Rather than watching a ball game on television, get a couple of people together and get season tickets. Plan a monthly outing or join a group that already has such outings available like the Sierra Club.
- Volunteer. Many organizations have need of the skills that you have in retirement, and it is a great way to explore a passion as well as meeting new people. One woman I met recently is part of Hawk Watch, a group who follows the annual migratory patterns of birds of prey such as hawks and eagles. She said that without that outlet, she would lead a very isolated life.
- Get hooked up to the internet if you are not already on-line. Many friendships are made on-line!
Try out some of these ideas BEFORE you retire!
"Learning to gain younger friends as we lose older ones adds more to life's enjoyment than retirement income," says George Vaillant, director of Harvard's landmark Study of Adult Development.
While our taste in movies, clothing, and music might differ greatly, making friends of younger people will give us more of an opportunity to try new things. Young people are attracted to the knowledge and experience that the older generation has, and the older generation can blossom when exposed to the vitality and freshness of younger friends.
Start now, yourself, by befriending an older person. Watch how that person blossoms when you pay him or her some attention, share an idea you have, or invite your new older friend to an event that he or she would be unlikely to attend alone. This is the sort of give and take that the world needs, and by practicing now, you will appreciate the opportunity that the friendship of a younger person provides for you.
As we age, we really can become lonely. Without looking for new friends, our retirement years can be spent in isolation.
It is now time to evaluate whom you spend most of your time with. If you are an intact couple, it is likely that you will discover that most of your time is spent with other couples. While this "double-dating" style of friendship can be comfortable, it is likely to leave either you or your spouse in trouble when one or the other of you dies, leaving the remaining spouse alone. If all friends are couples, they will feel true sorrow for the remaining spouse, but they do tend to fall off for a variety of reasons.
Such friendships falter because the empty seat at the table is too hard to face. As a new widow or widower, compassion and empathy are often necessary. To have someone who can truly understand the degree of pain and loneliness that is the companion of losing a spouse of many years. People who have not lost a mate simply cannot understand the depth of grief this can leave. It is even possible that couples will be jealous of your newly single life. They believe that you are having new and exciting romantic adventures and are envious.
Sadly, when people lose their spouse, is when they find their circle of friends has suddenly diminished rapidly. That is why it is vital that each member of a couple make friends that are only theirs. Making and maintaining separate friendships is a vital skill for your happiness later in life. It is possible that this can create problems if you have never discussed it with your spouse, but if you start now, then it will be natural to continue with such relationships.
In talking with elderly people who have lost a spouse, they give two bits of advice.
1. When one partner of a couple dies, the remaining partner will rely almost solely on single friends for love and support, rather than on friends who are still couples.
Moreover, they can have fur, feathers, or scales, but our pets are a source of companionship and love. Most people who live with animals after retirement are often healthier, less stressed, and happier than those who do not. The daily feeding requirement is often enough to keep an elderly person from focusing only on their own problems.
Having a dog, especially, will keep an elderly person much more active as a dog typically requires a daily walk. Even on the days when you do not feel like it, you are more likely to continue with your daily walk if you have a pet who expects it. My mother fell and badly broke her dominant arm. She had help the first couple of weeks walking her dog, but once all that help left, she found that the dog still needed a daily walk, and it was up to her to provide it. Once she started walking again, she regained a lot of her confidence that she thought was gone while she had become dependent on her help. Her recovery time was literally cut in half because she had an animal that depended on her.
You might also look into the possibility of training your dog to be a hospital visitor. Many retirees have specially trained their pets so that they can visit the sick in the hospital. Children's wards and the elderly are especially happy when they get a visit from a hospital pet.
Last Words on Social Circles
So often we believe that once we retire we will have plenty of time to look into all the ramifications of retirement, and all we have to do ahead of time is just to have enough money to retire.
The truth of the matter is that the longer we put off such activities as joining groups or making new friends, the more difficult it becomes. As we age, we become self-conscious about our new position in life. We are no longer revered as the elders of previous societies were. Without some sort of positive contribution, we believe that we are somehow lesser citizens. Nothing could really be further from the truth, but without practice, we really do lose our social skills.