Replacing Work: A New Purpose Can Lift Your Emotional Well-Being

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Conersation With

Dorothy W. Cantor, a psychotherapist from Westfield, N.J., has an unusual practice. In addition to treating routine emotional problems, she helps her patients work through the special psychological difficulties that sometimes develop when they retire.

At age 79, Dr. Cantor, a member of Rutgers University’s Board of Governors and a former president of the American Psychological Association, is far from retirement herself. She is the author of six books in psychology.

“What Do You Want to Do When You Grow Up?: Starting the Next Chapter of Your Life,” a handbook for people considering retirement, was written with Andrea Thompson and published by Little Brown in 2001.

We spoke for nearly two hours recently. An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.

How did you develop this specialized practice?

Well, I got older. And as I got older, my patients got older, too. With time, I began seeing more and more people thinking about their retirement and all the many emotional issues surrounding it.

Earlier in my life, I had seen people in my own family go through problems related to their own retirements. Their experiences taught me a great deal. I was able to use what I’d learned from them and bring it to my patients.

What exactly did you witness with your family members?

A lot of dislocation rooted in their not having planned ahead for the day when their careers or their jobs would come to an end.

My husband’s father, for instance, owned a department store in Jersey City. When he retired at age 55, he declared: “I’ve always worked six days a week. Now, I’m going to play golf every day.” And off he went. Six months later, this poor man was depressed because looking forward to playing golf is one thing, but playing it all the time is another. At that point, my husband, a stockbroker himself, suggested that his father get a broker’s license. My father-in-law had always played the market and was good at it. He spent the rest of his life as a stockbroker on his own terms. That gave him purpose.

As for my mother, she’d been a schoolteacher. The year she retired, she said to me, “Don’t tell me what to do, Dorothy.” And I didn’t. But every time we talked, she was running to a different doctor about some new ailment. Eventually, she said, “Dorothy, I must do something with myself.” My mother lived in Greenwich Village and she signed up for a couple of courses at the New School. And that was all it took! The doctors’ visits stopped. Once she had something interesting and structured to do, she stopped focusing on her body. From then until she was 87, she took a course every semester.

What sort of issues do your patients present with?

Often they come when they are approaching retirement age or when they must leave jobs because they’ve been downsized, kicked out, handed a package, whatever. They come to me with their fears. “What am I going to do with myself now?” If they’ve retired without a game plan, they might be depressed. Others are just bored. Another word for boredom is depression.

So my No. 1 question to them is this: “What did work give you, besides money?” People, I find, do things habitually, and they often aren’t aware of what nonmonetary benefits they get from their job or their profession. What I help them do is identify how it had anchored them. Once they’ve done that, they are positioned to make a change.

So what do your patients tell you about what work gave them?

They say, “Work gives me someplace where I can go every day.” Sometimes, they say: “I have friends and colleagues at work. It provides me with a connection.” Often they’ll say, “Working makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something.”

When we’ve identified what their job did for them, we find a creative way to replace the missing piece. That might mean working part time. Or volunteering for a charity. Or, as with my father-in-law, retraining for something new.

In most cases, they’re probably not going to be able to go back to what they did before. But there are ways they can use their skills and experience productively.

Like what?

I have a friend, not a patient, who was an executive at a major corporation. He’s begun volunteering a couple of days a week advising new entrepreneurs on getting their businesses started. He enjoys using his contacts and expertise that way. The rest of the time he plays golf and tennis.

I have a client who was a high-level administrator, and she was forced out of her job in her early 60s. She doesn’t want to retire yet. So she’s been contacting consulting firms to see if she can get jobs on a per diem basis. If that doesn’t work out, she’s thinking of volunteering her administrative skills to her diocese.

Retirement can be the time when you’re finally free enough to try something you always wanted to do. I know a retired psychologist who writes and publishes novels. He told me, “I don’t know if anyone reads my novels, but it gives me enormous pleasure to write them.”

Is this why you called your book, “What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?”

Yes. Many people spend their lives in professions that others have chosen for them. Retirement, if you have an adequate income, can be a chance to do things your way. One question I frequently ask is, “When you were a child, what did you dream of doing?”

I recently had a patient who dreaded her coming retirement. I asked her, “What did you want to be when you started out?” She answered, “An artist, but my parents thought it was silly.” Then, she said: “You know, I could start taking art classes. I could take up where I left off.”

We all had dreams when we were younger.

Do people think of retirement as a kind of huge extended vacation?

Yes. They think of it as the prize for having worked hard for many years. But vacations are generally a relaxing restorative break from work. When it’s all you have to do, it can become empty, tedious, purposeless and boring.

That’s why it’s so important to plan for how you’re going to replace your work. As a society, we’ve done a wonderful job teaching older people how to save and invest for retirement. There are financial planners everywhere. Yet, we don’t teach people how to plan for their emotional well-being. A person nearing retirement should be asking, “How do I want to spend my time?” They shouldn’t just let retirement happen to them.

One of the things I try to do is encourage people to use trial and error to find out. It’s what little kids do. They’ll play games, fall down, and they don’t care. As we get older, we get fearful of new things. My patients frequently ask me, “How do I know I’ll be good at doing something different?”

Well, by planning ahead, you can try on different things for size till you hit what’s right for you. Do you like children? Volunteer at a neighborhood school one day a week and see if that fulfills you. Have you been thinking of going for a late-life law degree? Why not take a class?

Aren’t there many people who find retirement a relief?

Sure. There’s a segment of the population that looks forward to retirement. This is particularly true of people who’ve done physically strenuous work. If you’re a laborer or a builder, if you’ve done heavy lifting or repetitious work, you may well want to stop.

It’s also a matter of temperament and situation. I meet professionals who’ve never loved their work and who are thrilled to be done with it. For them, retirement — if they have enough money — can sometimes be a reset button, a second chance.

What about you? You still work. Have you ever considered retirement?

Happily, I can do this for a long time. I intend to work until the patients stop calling.