DOI: 10.1176/appi.pn.2014.8a17
Retirement: A Road Last Traveled
Psychiatric News
Volume 49 Number 15 page 1

Psychiatrists spend years helping others confront the personal experiences and life events that dishevel their emotions, disrupt their plans, distort their intentions, and batter their lives. We remain observant and professionally detached as patients explore all aspects of life as they recount their histories. We hear all the stories there are to tell of abuse, neglect, indulgence; stories of love and hate, of goodness and violence, of life and of death. We provide care on the premise that change can and will come; life will be better.

All this work and gradual growth consume time, a key issue in therapy. We attend to time as a scheduling issue and as a necessary ingredient to successful therapy. We often recommend the value of “free time” to patients as a part of successful therapy. And all the while, our own “free time” becomes increasingly precious, and its diminishment nags us quietly but persistently. “Free time” becomes a luxury in the busyness of life. Ah! The quietude! The peace! The freedom in that little space of existence that is our very own!

In the rush of busy practice, we are very aware of the element of time and find ourselves focusing on “saving time,” as if it could be stored away somewhere and its later availability would allow fulfillment of all those dreams of traveling, reading, long walks, enjoying life.

Then comes retirement! Comes freedom! Comes leisure! Prolonged waiting is ended. Our time-treasure lies before us. It is ours to spend as we please. Comes the unpleasant awareness, “free time” is not as “free” as we expected. There are obligations and responsibilities. Various life-items need to be decided, managed, monitored. Rarely is time as easily controlled in retirement as it was in our practice world. Accommodations are required. Schedules involve the needs and decisions of others. Personal conflicts occur in the face of new and complex interactions with those whose lives now intersect more frequently with ours: spouses, partners, children, friends, colleagues, neighbors.

We spent years helping others accommodate to relational complexities by mollifying responses and modifying behaviors. Now our own difficulty of doing what we so readily recommended may create discord. This “introductory phase” to retirement is usually unexpected, sometimes difficult, rarely “a wash.” It may require some “intrapersonal counseling.” We are now, in a sense, on the other side of the desk.

And some dreams do come true. Items on the bucket list are scratched off after “the” grand cruise, various trips, a regular golf schedule, books that needed to be read, a fill of favorite restaurants, regular gym, some operas, Broadway shows, tennis lessons, upgrading the house.

Undoubtedly the most challenging sector of retirement is aging. It is more often faced with anxiety than with grace. It hangs on the fringes of life for a while: wrinkles come, hair goes, new aches and pains develop, slight physical limitations become apparent (button holes seem smaller), clothes seem a bit larger or smaller, immediate memory a bit slower. All not worrisome yet, but annoying, disconcerting. The internist begins to ask and then to show concern about cholesterol, blood pressure, unsteadiness, blood sugar, and so on. Questions about diet and exercise are not reassuring. They get our attention, which is exactly why they are asked. Changes are recommended far more often than they are followed.

As life goes on, the years seem to pass quickly, but the days drag wearisomely. We “time watchers” are puzzled by this seeming change. The stark truth: clocks tick to the same rhythm all over the world, but the music of life is not legato. Eventually we find ourselves time-wealthy, wondering how to spend our late-life treasure, which unexpectedly presents now as less alluring, less gracious. Old age intrudes boldly and often brazenly into our world and begins stealthily but steadily not only to reduce our stores of time but also to limit our ability to spend what remains in our account.

Finally we learn what we always wanted our patients to understand. You remember the words, “Things can change and do change, you know. And there will be an end to this particular struggle you’re having.”

Robert McAllister, M.D., Ph.D., is a retired private practitioner. In the 1960s, he taught at Catholic University and consulted at NSA; later he became the Nevada State Hospital superintendent and obtained the first NIMH grant in the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education to construct a CMHC in Las Vegas. In the 1980s he worked at Taylor Manor Hospital in Ellicott City, Md., and was the director of the Institute of Psychiatry and Religion and an adjunct professor at Loyola University for 20 years.

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