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Coming of Age

Steve Abramowitz

I RECENTLY HAD THREE retired men visit my psychology practice, each grappling with depression. Just as women face special challenges during their senior years, so too do their husbands, fathers and male friends.

Who hasn’t been seduced by those syrupy commercials where an elderly couple hold hands while walking a sun-kissed beach? Retirement is advertised as a magic carpet transporting us to a well-earned destination of meaning and frolic. But the reality is more complicated. Aging and illness can leave a hoped-for blissful retirement instead fraught with peril and disappointment.

My three clients felt betrayed and unprepared for retirement’s melancholy side. They were unanchored, in physical retreat and isolated without the social skills needed to nurture relationships. They’re in grief, mourning the loss of who they were and smarting at the limits that old age imposes.

Maybe you’re one of the fortunate few for whom retirement is unambiguously rich in renewal and self-regard. But for those of us too trusting or caught unawares, retirement often leaves a bittersweet mix of fulfillment and despair. Perhaps you or your loved ones have been blindsided by the ravages of aging that stalk our senior years.

Inspired by the experiences of my patients, I’d like to illustrate several of the hurdles men encounter while navigating their retirement years. All three men were treated by me, and I referred them for evaluation for possible medication. The details of their psychotherapy have been substantially modified to protect their identity.

Gary was a successful restaurateur who handed over daily operations to his daughter. He remained as a consultant, hoping that would ease his transition to a more balanced life. But that arrangement soon proved insufficient. Gary experienced a profound loss of purpose. He felt little reason to start the day and struggled to get out of bed.

Gary was skilled at home repairs, so I encouraged him to find projects around the house to inject meaning into his life and to rebuild his self-esteem. He started to lay new tile in his master bathroom, but has so far been unable to complete the job. Depression, and the resulting low energy, can lead to difficulty with task completion, further exacerbating a patient’s self-criticism.

In retirement, men’s sense of prestige and well-being hinges on their money savvy, just as it did during their working years. Problem is, once they give up their paycheck, they can no longer claim the provider role. On top of that, an often younger, still-employed wife may now be the breadwinner, which can be another ego blow. But perhaps the most corrosive yet utterly preventable damage occurred years earlier: While in the workforce, they failed to live below their means and invest the difference wisely, so now they don’t have enough for a financially comfortable retirement.

Harold and his wife Ginger are in this predicament. She abandoned a promising teaching career to raise her two kids, leaving Harold to earn the wherewithal to cover the family’s living costs and save for retirement. He handled the support part well, but muffed on saving and investing. Ginger has been understanding of her husband’s financial oversights, but there’s been a price to pay. Because they didn’t save enough for retirement, they plan to supplement their Social Security benefits and savings with part-time jobs at an auto garage and bookstore, reflecting their respective interests in cars and reading.

Health care surprises can be devastating psychologically as well as physically. Whether chronic or acute, debilitating or temporary, medical events’ emotional aftermaths aren’t unique to men. Still, masculinity doubts are our exclusive domain. Yes, societal expectations can have a pernicious effect on women. But we would be remiss to neglect their contribution to depression among male retirees.

A virile man is an active man, and aging takes a toll on our physical capabilities. One afternoon, Paul came into my office unusually agitated. His bad back had prevented him from finishing his morning walk to a coffee shop, something that had been part of his and his wife Julie’s routine ever since he retired six years ago. Julie was particularly upset about Paul’s inability to accompany her because their walks had become a way to have quality time together. As an alternative, I suggested weekly picnic lunches in the park. Both products of California, Paul and Julie were also enthusiastic about joining a yoga class to gently exercise Paul’s weak back.

But Paul’s setback had deeper repercussions. He began to ruminate about his father’s early demise at age 49, and the inevitability of his own physical and mental decline. He was haunted by his lack of control over the finality of death. Even when elderly, men are expected to be strong and stoic as they near the end. Paul was open to my suggestion to share his fears with his pastor and to familiarize himself with the soothing spirituality of Eastern religions.

Let’s face it, we men are social Neanderthals. Most of us have relied on our partners to bring people into our life. We make a few friends at the job, but we’re socially adrift after leaving the workplace. How many of us call friends just to chat? Many men only sparingly allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to initiate new friendships or even maintain longstanding ones. Are you willing to keep up a friendship when you always have to be the pursuer?

To be sure, our life’s last chapter can be a time of expanding horizons and gratifying intimacy with family and friends. But retirement also necessarily portends trouble and travail, and it challenges us to achieve peace with ourselves and our susceptibility to aging’s relentless march.

Steve Abramowitz is a psychologist in Sacramento, California. Earlier in his career, Steve was a university professor, including serving as research director for the psychiatry department at the University of California, Davis. He also ran his own investment advisory firm. Check out Steve’s earlier articles.

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