'Don't retire – rewire': The tried and tested strategies for retirement

It is surely what we are all aiming for but not something everyone achieves. What is ‘it’? A long and happy life, of course. For those that do attain this, research shows that a sense of purpose, a mental challenge and a social network of real people are key.

Our working life fulfils all three for many of us – but what happens when we retire?

That’s why most of us need to start planning for retirement at least 18 months before exiting the workforce, says Derek Bell, who heads up the Retirement Planning Council of Ireland.

Bell recommends attending the Council’s retirement planning course about 18 months before your departure date to learn both about the challenges ahead and tried and tested strategies for preparing for them.

Begin – where possible – your transition into retirement by reducing your workload to a four-day, and then to a three-day week at least one year before leaving the workplace, he advises. If you’re working flat out one day and not the next, retirement can feel like falling off a cliff, so it’s sensible to acclimatise.

While financial planning for retirement is important, Bell acknowledges, the real problem for most people is all that extra time, and how to manage it.

“Most people are out of the home for a minimum of 50 hours a week while working. This means that in retirement, they have 50 hours to fill every week for the rest of their lives. You really need to prepare for this.”

Twelve months before retiring, visualise what a retirement week will be like and start thinking about how to fill whole chunks of time, advises Bell. “When you take work out of your day it’s very easy to lose structure,” he says, “so plan activities which take up chunks of time, for example to go swimming in the morning.”

Don’t retire – rewire, says Dr Mark Rowe, a GP who specialises in lifestyle medicine. Rowe believes employees should start preparing for retirement up to five years before they leave work.

If you get fulfilment from your job or career, start considering how you might continue to contribute to society once you leave the workforce, he suggests – explore volunteering or mentoring opportunities for using your wisdom and knowledge, or investigate the possibility of part-time work. All of these can provide meaning and a sense of purpose to your day.

About 12 months before you leave the workforce, start thinking about your physical fitness and agility too.

Bell suggests testing your agility by lying on the floor and trying to get into a sitting position without using your hands. It’s also worth determining how long you can balance on one leg. And, if you’re finding it increasingly difficult to open jars, despite the fact that you don’t have arthritis or an injury, seek advice on how to build muscle in your hands – you’re going to continue to need them in the years ahead.

“Exercise is a great way to stay physically strong and agile. If you don’t already have a good exercise regime in place, start building one into your day,” advises Dr Rowe.

Ideally your exercise regime should incorporate two 15-minute strength training sessions a week along with aerobic exercise such as walking or jogging for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five days a week, he says.

Try also to work some form of integrative exercise such as yoga or Pilates into your fitness regime, adds Rowe, to ensure you “move plenty” during your day.

Dr Fiona O’Reilly, a family doctor with an interest in lifestyle medicine, recommends investing in a Fitbit to track and improve your walking speed in advance of retirement or to join a gym or sign up for dancing classes as a sociable and fun exercise.

It’s also important, she says, to plan ahead in terms of filling your days with activities, hobbies and interests which you enjoy and which are of benefit to you. If possible, she advises, avoid becoming a full-time babysitter for grandchildren.

“Full-time childcare is very demanding,” she says, adding that for grandparents, there appears to be a connection between a full-time childcare role and higher blood pressure levels and a sensation of burnout.

This is also the time to have a full health NCT, advises Dr Rowe, who explains this should incorporate a test of your cardiac risk factors, your blood pressure and a waist-circumference check.

“Have your abdominal circumference checked – for men it should be around 37″ and for women it should be under 32,” he explains.

“Have blood tests to check for cholesterol and also blood sugar levels to see if you may be pre-diabetic. Another test is CRP which tests for inflammation in the body.”

Men can opt to have their prostate checked and women are advised to have the CA125 screening test for uterine and ovarian cancer, says Dr O’Reilly, who suggests also having a Dexa scan to check for any signs of osteoporosis, and a calcium screening test to indicate any problems with cardiac health.

If you drink alcohol, monitor your consumption patterns a year or two before retirement. If you have a tendency to drink a lot, or to drink alone, reduce your consumption – and stop drinking alone before you retire, Dr Rowe advises.

“This is a big pitfall. It’s important to be aware of your alcohol consumption as this can increase dramatically when you find you don’t have to get up and go to work in the morning,” warns Bell.

Now is also a good time to assess your diet, and to begin gradually introducing improvements, so that you have good nutrition habits by the time you finish work.

Suggests dietitian Sarah Keogh: “Look after your bones by eating foods rich in calcium like yogurt, cheese. Take a vitamin D supplement to help you absorb calcium. This keeps your bones strong and means you are less likely to break something if you fall.”

Keogh also recommends the regular consumption of oily fish – salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines for Omega 3 and B Vitamins which are important for brain health. Eat seeds for fibre and to aid digestion. These also contain magnesium which is crucial for the healthy functioning of the body.

Last but not least, be aware that not everybody welcomes the prospect of retirement. A sudden loss in a person’s sense of identity can be detrimental to mental health following retirement, Bell warns.

“Most of us describe ourselves by what we do rather than who we are,” he says.

“Once we retire we can no longer say what we are – so it’s really important to think about what your identity will be when you retire.”

Be aware of any signs of fear and depression, advises Dr Rowe: “If you notice that any discussion of retirement brings on a sense of anxiety or of feeling down, of not wanting to talk about retirement or to discuss what you plan to do, these are signs that you may be feeling negative about the prospect,” he comments.

Anxiety or depression about retiring can also manifest through physical symptoms, advises Dr O’Reilly.

“Physical aches and pains can be a sign of being affected by a low mood,” she observes. “I’ve had patients who have come in complaining of severe backache and pain around the body in the months approaching their retirement, and on investigation, the cause has proved to be psychological.”

If you suspect the onset of low mood or depression around the prospect of retiring, talk to your GP and/or seek counselling says O’Reilly. Remember, a mild anti-depressant can help, she says.

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