Wed, 11 Apr, 2018Danielle McCarthy

From “everything I dreamed of” to depression: the realities of retirement

From “everything I dreamed of” to depression: the realities of retirement

Some mornings, Mary (not her real name) struggles to get out of bed. She thinks she "might as well stay in bed" because there's "nothing to do".

The 72-year-old stopped work two years ago after her employer suggested it was time she put her feet up. Mary reluctantly agreed and went quietly into retirement, something she now regrets.

Her Dutch parents instilled a strong work ethic in her at a young age. At 15, she left school to take up a cleaning job. She estimates she has held 20 jobs in her lifetime, at times juggling two or three at once to make ends meet.

After 55 years of full-time employment, the sudden transition into a much slower pace of life has been difficult for Mary. In fact, it has brought on depression.  

"When you go to work, you know you've got to be there at 8am… now I just flop around all day. There is no structure, it is very demotivating," she says.

"I never thought I would be this sad."

Naturally a "busy person" she fills her days with hobbies such as gardening, sewing, house renovations and tai chi. Once a week she'll go out at night, dancing. But, she says it all feels "fruitless", like she's "just filling a void".

John (not his real name), another retiree, sympathises with Mary. The 70-year-old had looked forward to his retirement but was made redundant two years ago. The sudden push out of the workforce made him angry. 

"I felt like I'd been cheated out of my last few good years of employment," he says. "I've never experienced depression before in my life, but I did get depressed. I went for counselling at one point as I didn't want it to fall on my wife or anyone else."

Others, such as Jeanette de Montalk, 75, thrive in their golden years. De Montalk left her job as a librarian with Massey University five years ago, and recently moved from Manawatū to live in the Bay of Islands, close to Kerikeri.

When asked if retirement was everything she had dreamed of, she says: "Yes, I have time to do all the things I used to dream of doing at work. I like being my own boss and doing what I want in my own time. I never liked being organised around other people." De Montalk has lived on her own for almost 25 years but has always enjoyed her own company.

The move north means she is much closer to two of her children who live in Auckland, and her 15-year-old granddaughter: "She was sick last year and I was able to look after her. It's great to have that freedom. They visit a lot."

She spends her days gardening – her new home has a large one – and still draws upon her librarian skills to delve into researching her family tree. "Research is so interesting, it really grabs me. The more you find, the more you want to know." 

One drawback is the lack of income, so she is "a bit poorer" but it's not a struggle – she's just more careful with money, she says, and is lucky that her daughter Jen pitched in to help purchase her new home.

Her advice to those approaching retirement is to have some interests outside of work, and be happy with your own company, or if not, "get out and meet people".

Aileen Keery says retirement is "as good as it can be" now. The 81-year-old "loved" her job at Fairfax Media where she worked for 36 years but retired from the company to look after her ailing husband, who has dementia. 

"I was 76 when I left," she says. "At the time, I was working three days a week and that was ideal. 

"I could have gone on a lot longer because that was a perfect life for me."

Stepping out of the social and fast-paced environment of the office into what she describes as an "isolated world confined at home" was incredibly testing. 

"I am a naturally positive person, and an outgoing person, and it was the social environment I enjoyed the most. At work I was my own person, I was strong and people respected me. I felt like I was doing something useful and it made me feel really good. Whereas at home I am just the wife."

These days, the couple live in a retirement village. Keery takes advantage of the small windows of free time when she can leave her husband alone to pop out to bingo or meet up with the gardening club or choir. 

"It took almost two years before I slipped into a state where I wasn't missing work." 

*not their real names

Take it slow, experts advise

Age Concern chief executive Stephanie Clare advises easing into retirement by slowly reducing hours – start by cutting back to four days a week for a year, then down to three and so on.

"The idea is the new-found free time will be used to pick up hobbies or create friendships that you didn't have time to do while working," Clare says. 

"Men can find it harder to retire because, as a rule, they aren't as proactive with maintaining friendship groups. Women are more likely to call up friends and go out for coffee."

To maintain an active social network, she advises working on friendships with younger people as a way of future-proofing your relationships – this way you'll maintain an active group of friends into your 80s or 90s.

Retirement planning consultant Cynthia Munro says New Zealanders are adept at financial planning for their retirement, but most people don't forward plan the lifestyle they wish to lead – two aspects she believes need to hold equal importance. When she asks clients to describe their ideal retirement situation, she often hears of dreamlike visions of walks on the beach and holidays in the sun – but nothing tangible. 

"People think, 'Gosh I've been working for a long time, I'm ready to retire,' without sparing a thought for what they're actually going to do." 

Munro has seen the negative impact retirement can have on mental health, particularly those who've worked their whole lives."

When you leave the workforce there's a real sense of loss as you lose your regular social contact, which can bring on loneliness, she says: "You can feel a loss of self-worth and you can also feel purposeless as you no longer contribute to a wider team and feel recognised and needed."

And Kiwis are living progressively longer. These days the average retirement can last about 25 to 30 years.

"For many, days have been structured since they started school, but in retirement we're free – which is great – but, for those who thrive on routine, those years of freedom can feel overwhelming, so they need to create their own structure," says Munro.

When planning retirement, she recommends people ask themselves a few important questions: Where do I want to live? Who do I enjoy spending time with? What pleases me outside of work? What gives me a sense of purpose and achievement and how can I replicate that?

Volunteer work can bring satisfaction, for example, but she says it's important people don't fall into the first volunteer role they see "because it seems like the right thing to do". 

To get the most fulfilment from a volunteer role, go for a role that makes the best use of your personal skills, she advises.

Written by Laura Baker. Republished with permission of

Where to get help:

Age Concern Wellington (04) 499 6646

Depression Helpline -  Free call for support from a trained counsellor 0800 111 757

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)