As older workers begin thinking about retirement day and the years that will follow, two conflicting assumptions often emerge.
Assumption No. One: Retirement represents the "golden years," a period of relaxation and financial security that opens up opportunities to travel and pursue personal interests. This myth says retirement will be the best years of your life.
Assumption No. Two: The years following retirement hold three terrors -- loss of identity once provided by a career, the inevitable onset of poor health, and financial decline. The bottom line, according to this assumption, is often loneliness and depression.
Are these assumptions correct? According to many experts in the fields of retirement and aging, the answer is -- both. The assumption that will best describe your "golden years," they say, depends on how you approach retirement in the months and years before you stop working.
"What people don't prepare for as they approach the ends of their careers are the psychological aspects of retirement," says Rosalie S. Abrams, director of the Maryland Office on Aging. "Retirement can be devastating, especially for those who haven't developed outside interests."
Often, it's a loss of status from leaving a cherished career that has the worst effect. "For a lot of people, their whole identity was their career," Ms. Abrams says. "Many people get their status in society from the work they do."
There is, however, a way to prepare for the shock. "You need to think about retirement before it happens," Ms. Abrams says. "The loss of identification that retired people face -- 'I'm a doctor, I'm a telephone operator' -- creates an image. After you're retired, you have to continue to feel that internally."
An effective way to maintain a continued sense of identity is to plan on remaining active after you retire, Ms. Abrams says.
"Go to senior centers, take courses, pursue hobbies and reach out to other people," she advises. "If there's ever a time to develop socialization skills, it's when you're retired."
While maintaining an active lifestyle helps, some people still find it difficult to adjust to retirement. Why? Because the concept of "retirement" is a fairly recent one.
"No one is socialized to retire," says Mary Catherine Cobbs, an official in Baltimore County's Department of Aging and a former field manager for the county's senior centers. "We're taught how to be a mother, father or daughter, but not how to retire. It's new in the last 30 years."
Also, people are living longer, she adds. "You've got to expect you're going to live 20 or 30 years after you retire," Ms. Cobbs points out. "There's a whole big chunk of life ahead of you."
In the adjustment to retired life, the biggest problem most people confront is boredom, according to Ms. Cobbs. "Boredom affects memory -- no matter what your age," she warns. "And it leads to depression."
Yet there's a positive side to retirement that shouldn't be forgotten: By avoiding boredom and taking advantage of your financial independence, you can enjoy a period of personal liberty.
"By remaining active, many people, for the first times in their lives, become social pioneers," Ms. Cobbs says. "After all, you can't get fired once you're retired, so you don't face the social inhibitions of younger people."
Another key factor in a successful plan for retirement is developing a positive attitude toward health.
"It's a fact of life that many older people are faced with chronic disease," says Virginia Lawhorn, director of Special Geriatric Services for the Baltimore County Department of Aging. "But it's your attitude toward health, which is formed over a lifetime, that makes the biggest difference."
Retired people need to accept the reality that wear and tear on the body is a natural process, Ms. Lawhorn says. "People who do well in retirement nurture a positive attitude," she says. "People approaching retirement should be doing some soul searching about their attitudes toward health."
While retirement is often a confrontation with the harsher realities of life, statistics reveal that for most people, the retirement years are, in fact, "golden."
"Health and finances are the two major predicators of a positive sense of satisfaction in retirement," says Dr. Evan DeRenzo, a psychologist who specializes in aging. "It's folklore that people don't adjust to retirement because of role loss."
If retirement is voluntary and income is sufficient to cover basic needs, most people enjoy their retirement years, Ms. DeRenzo points out.
"If you've done some pre-retirement planning, you'll adjust well to it," continues Ms. DeRenzo, who teaches at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., and is a consultant to Baltimore County's Geriatric Services in the Bureau of Mental Health.
Some groups, however, don't do as well.
"There's a big problem with older women and retirement," Ms. DeRenzo says. "Many are not in good financial shape and have it rough, especially if they never worked and have no spousal benefits."
But people who have a consistent work history tend to do well, she adds. "If you're in good health and have sufficient income to meet your basic needs, retirement really is pretty good."
For information on retirement counseling, senior services and benefits, contact the Maryland Office on Aging at 301 W. Preston St. in Baltimore, call (410) 225-1100, or dial toll-free (800) 338-0153.