Now new research suggests portraying retirement as a patchwork quilt of different phases could improve retirement planning, especially for women.
"Women need to recognize the changing nature of retirement and embrace the different phases that they may encounter," wrote researchers Christine Price and Olena Nesteruk of Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey.
The study is based on interviews with 40 female retirees from different backgrounds, living in the Midwest of the United States. All the women were retired seven years or less.
The study was published in the Journal of Women & Aging (Vol. 22, No. 2, 2010).
The results showed women’s retirement lifestyles varied considerably. Once retired, participants pursued one of five pathways:
Several of the women focused on family-related activities.
As "Hobart", a remarried woman with four grandchildren, explained:
I feel like right now my life is very filled and I feel needed, like [I'm] accomplishing something. I am mostly involved with a lot of family activities. I am not as involved with volunteering as I thought I would be, but I’m going to put that on hold. I mostly find that I am doing things for the family.
Similarly, "Dollie" and "Kay" enjoyed spending more time with their husbands. They talked about the joys of traveling and remodeling the house. As well as the challenges of negotiating space and dividing up the household chores.
Some women channeled their extra time into the needs of the community.
"Amy", a former nurse, volunteered at the Adult Day Care facility and the civic club. She also donated time to her church.
I’ve had so many wonderful support systems. . . . I feel such a need to do this for other people. I’m busier now than I was when I was working full-time, but I’m doing things that I enjoy, and knowing that I have helped a bit in the community is gratifying.
"Cathy" also became a volunteer, joining the social justice committee at her local temple. "It is nice to have the extra time to be able to devote to something that I enjoy that I think is very beneficial. It’s a really nice way to focus my energies and to get other people involved," she said.
3. "Our time"
Other women saw retirement as "their turn," to enjoy themselves and focus on their own interests.
"Monica" put it succinctly:
I get up and sit on the deck and read the paper and drink my coffee in the morning. I go to Bible study at the church, go to exercise class at noon, or it might just be doing housework and enjoying my home, which I’ve never have been able to do before.
4. Work rocks
Even in retirement, work retained a prominent place in some women’s lives. These women enjoyed the social contacts, scope for creativity and the satisfying structure associated with work.
For example, "Elizabeth", worked part-time unloading clothes for a local retail chain.
And I truly, I truly enjoy it . . . . It’s been good for me because it keeps me busy. It’s good to see people and good to be out and hear what’s happening in their lives and talk a little bit about the things that are happening around you. It’s a good social outlet for me too in addition to bringing in a little bit of money.
"Sharon", a retired professor also worked part-time:
I really loved working. To me, my work was really a very important part of my life, the satisfaction of work was not money as much as it was really my own development and achievement in work, but no one really does recognize you for most of the things you do in retirement.
Some women were disappointed in retirement, according to the study. They were forced to confront unexpected challenges like the death of a spouse or money problems.
"Gina" retired reluctantly to care for her ailing husband. He died shortly after.
So many people just love retirement and they do this and they do that, but my husband died. I don’t drive anymore, so I’m not like a lot of women that have the freedom. I also miss work – I got out every day and I got exercise and I saw people and I did things I liked to do.
"Jane" was doing well until the markets collapsed:
Unfortunately, my small nest egg has gone kaput with the stock market over the past year, so I am not able to live the way I had hoped to live monetarily. Plus, my health is failing to the point where I’m no longer able to work. So that the best laid plans can just go up in the air. The only thing I can do is put one foot forward and do the best I can day by day.
Retirement means different things
Retirement is often advertised as an event or single life stage, but for these women, retirement was not a single step over a clear black line. It was an evolving process.
The women entered retirement with diverse life histories, employment experiences and personal interests. They chose individual pathways. And, as circumstances changed, new life pathways opened up. As the new study’s authors note, "Retirement appears to be a progression where things change as health status, relationships, and family circumstances change."