Empty Nest Retirement Years

Experts: Mental, emotional aspects should be part of retirement planning

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant


When it comes to retirement and empty nest planning, many people focus on their financial future and health care. While those are important, planning for mental and emotional health is important, too.

Change is stressful — even good changes, such as wrapping up a satisfying career, acquiring more free time and watching the children achieve their goals. But this phase of life causes a void — the loss of pleasure. These changes can cause some people to feel lost, confused and depressed.

“Any transition is definitely challenging,” said Karen Knab, licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Buffalo. “A lot of times, people are excited for a few weeks or months, but the reality of their new lifestyle sets in and they haven’t prepared for as much free time as they have. It can lead to regrets or even depression because they have left behind a lot of things.”

People accustomed to structure in their lives struggle facing seemingly endless open hours. Lacking that structure can make them feel bored, frustrated and adrift.

“A lot of people think about retirement as a vacation,” said Audrey Berger, PhD, the life coach at Turning Point Life Coaching in Rochester. “It’s really important to plan for the emotional and social aspects of retirement. A vacation for a time-limited period is nice, but an unlimited vacation is not so nice most of the time.”

Retirement and an empty house also means they lose the social connections that help support their emotional health. Berger said that although many people don’t view work as a social outlet, most say that they’ll miss their coworkers even if they’re ready to leave the work behind.

While their children live at home, parents’ social circle includes the parents of their children’s friends, teachers, coaches and instructors. But once the children leave home, those relationships likely fall by the wayside. People who downsize and move once their children leave home also lose relationships with neighbors.

Going to work also gives many people a sense of purpose. Consider when introducing themselves, people provide their names and professions. After retirement, the identity shifts.

Planning for what to do after retirement should start long before the final day at work. The process starts with accepting retirement as a new phase of life that doesn’t have to mean no longer working.

Knab recommends meeting social needs by working part-time or seasonally or by volunteering.

“Any of these things can help ease into the social pieces people leave behind when they leave their work,” Knab said.

Book clubs, exercise groups or classes for lifelong learners can also provide social and mental stimulation.

“A lot of people retire to help with their grandkids,” Knab said. “They have a day or two or three filled. Everyone can benefit if grandparents are healthy and able to watch the children.”

Caring for grandchildren regularly also helps empty nesters not feel quite so “empty” as before.

CichowskiShawn Marie Cichowski, life coach and president of WNY Life Coaching in Buffalo, also stated that retirement can be stressful.

“We attach a lot to our jobs, like friendships, lifestyle, purpose and identity,” she said. “Taking that away can be difficult.”

She encourages clients to pinpoint what value their careers brought them and then they work together to find other ways to obtain those elements such as socialization, mental challenges, recognition and more.

“Take a look again at redeveloping your vision as to how you want to enjoy your retirement,” Cichowski said. “Having plans gives you a design instead of it defaulting. What do you want to enjoy? It’s time to use that personal energy.”

Brainstorming, journaling, talking with trusted friends or a life coach may help guide provide guidance.

Those retiring from a soured career can find planning “really tricky,” Cichowski said. “They want to get out of work but don’t realize how much of their energy they devoted to that. They have all this freed up energy and high expectations for retirement.”

Assessing values, such as the importance of serving others or the need to receive recognition can also help determine what to do next.

“People who have taken passions and turned it into careers, they get so much fulfillment,” Cichowski said. “People sometimes redevelop themselves after retirement. Picking up some activities and volunteer work after retirement help them stay active and find purpose in their day.”