After a 40-year career as a clinical psychologist, I retired from active practice in 2006. I had been cutting back gradually but my decision to do so completely wasn’t easy.
I didn’t know how much I would miss not seeing patients. After all, I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of doing therapy and the emotional satisfaction of helping. It was a highly meaningful activity. In addition, it provided other important parts to my life, such as professional and social contacts which were enriching. (I was less concerned about financial security since I had savings and my wife was still working.) So retirement was going to be a challenge. How will I spend my time? How will I replace the things that brought purpose and satisfaction to my life?
I began by enrolling in a lifelong learning institute several years before I stopped practicing. It offered intellectual and social benefits. Taking and giving courses on a wide variety of topics reminded me that I like learning. Not everything: I prefer history and politics, science, philosophy, and music more than poetry and literature. I’ve been particularly interested in aging, memory, and health. I also did some memoir writing and had a couple of pieces published in a literary review. The learning I pursued was for its own sake; not towards a degree or a skill for work. I studied with others who had varied life experiences, which enriched classroom and lunch room discussion. In the latter we included lessons about life.
While initially hesitant, I discovered that leading a course, or a study group as it was called, was very rewarding. Preparing and leading was a good way to learn about topics of interest, like the physiology of stress, and develop more computer skills. There was satisfaction in the mastery of leading successfully and in joining an unofficial elite group in the organization, namely, of study group leaders. I found co-leading particularly enjoyable. It allowed for sharing the labor of a 12-week course and for collaboration.
But after 10 years in the setting where I served on major committees, and led and participated in study groups, I became restless. I wanted to expand my focus, to move beyond the academic structure towards something with a more socially useful potential, a familiar quest for many at this life stage.
Together with other colleagues we began quasi-research projects using ourselves and other members of the institute as subjects. One effort resulted in a book, a combination of theoretical speculation and narratives about aging. It elaborates on how older folks deal with the various issues of aging, like retirement, Illness, and loss. In another work we found that their spirituality and identity remained stable and their pursuit of social connections was vital and ongoing.
In both projects we discovered examples of resilience and courage. We think that people are more likely to demonstrate these qualities in later life if they did so earlier. Successful experience breeds confidence in overcoming challenges. Familial factors including genetics may also contribute. But we remain curious about how resilience and courage might be developed and strengthened.
We presented our work at several national meetings on aging. Because of the uniqueness of our sample drawn from our institute, an economically and intellectually advantaged group, we realize the need for further study and expansion of our ideas.
I’ve asked myself if I’ve used my time after retirement wisely. My answer so far is positive. I’m still an active participant in the institute and am able to balance it with other activities involving health, family, and community. My activities fit with our current knowledge about successful aging, which includes, among other items, meaningful, ongoing mental activity and social engagement.
Ever since a group of retired New York City school teachers joined with the New School in 1962 to create the Institute for Retired Professionals, retirement learning programs have been widely disseminated. This relatively new social structure has provided an intellectual and social setting that has shown considerable success in helping seniors navigate the varying and unpredictable journeys of retirement and aging. With the rapid growth of our over 65 population, retirement learning programs will become progressively more important in helping this group remain healthy and productive.
Hy Kempler, PhD, 78, is a retired clinical psychologist. He is a member of the Harvard Institute of Learning in Retirement.