Couples retire at different times

Dave Aspden remembers the first day of his retirement as one of the worst of his life. He drove his wife, Diane, to her job.

“Then I came home and went back to bed,” he says. “After a while, I got up. And then it hit me: I had nothing to do.”

When Diane came home from work, she asked, “Have you cooked a meal?”

“I was so busy feeling sorry for myself, I had forgotten anyone else,” says Dave, 63, a methods and procedures analyst.

No retirement honeymoon
So he started cooking the evening meals but he still hated being on his own all day. “I got frightened,” he says. “I was on my own and I would go upstairs just for the sake of walking upstairs. My mind was drifting. What if this happens or that happens? What if I get sick?”

Dave and Diane, of Ajax, Ont., are classic examples of a modern phenomenon we’ll call “out-of-sync retirement.

Retirement textbooks all refer to the “retirement honeymoon”—the first two years of retirement when couples are free to travel and do all the things they’ve always yearned for.

Today, forget the honeymoon. Men, increasingly inclined— being forced—to take early retirement, are often coming home to empty houses. Their wives are still working.

Women continue working
Debbie Vigoda, executive director of the Ontario Gerontology Association, said she saw the trend coming 25 years ago as increasing numbers of women, many younger than their husbands, joined the workforce.

Women are telling her, “I am not at my peak yet. I’m not interested in retirement.” It’s especially true for women who have resumed their careers after child-rearing years.

Women are also loath to lose social contacts at work. This network is just as important for men, Vigoda says, “but they don’t realize it until they lose these contacts.”

Possible marital strife
This off-balance retirement schedule, according to a study of 534 retiring married couples in upstate New York, means the retirement transition period becomes a time of marital strife for many.

Generally, says Dr. Phyllis Moen, one of the researchers, husbands and wives are happiest when they retire at the same time, and conflict is greatest when the man retires first.

“That’s because husbands are not used to being alone at home,” says another expert, Dr. Maximiliane Szinovacz of Eastern Virginia Medical School.

“It may create issues of status and power in the marriage.”

Next page: Out of sync

Out of sync
In a reversal of a generation ago, today it’s common for women to be unused to being alone at home.

“I retired at 55,” says Joyce McGaughey, a former Toronto school teacher, “and I found it very difficult. I missed the other teachers and the children. For the first year, I stayed home and found it very depressing.”

But by the time her husband, Bill, retired from his engineering job, Joyce had created an active new life for herself supply teaching. And it was Bill the family was worried about. They thought he was watching too much television.

“I worried his mind would go and he would fade away,” says Joyce, smiling now.

Possible second career
The solution: following a six-week trip together to Australia, Bill sent out his resumé, landed an engineering job that carried far less responsibility than his original job and enjoyed a blissful second career for several years before retiring a second time.

“By the time you retired again, I was ready to have you home again,” Joyce tells Bill, now 72.

“I think I really wanted to see more of you.”

Today they keep busy, travelling, curling and playing bridge.

When right time?
But even where a couple is in business together, there can be friction over the right time to retire.

Kittie and Paul Schoening have worked together for more than 35 years in their small Montreal fur trade supply firm. For the last year or two, they’ve been trying to agree when to call it quits.

Paul started thinking about retirement two years ago when he slipped and broke his femur while out hiking on his 65th birthday. Kitty, 61, is not ready.

Gradual pulling out
“I am always worrying we won’t make it financially,” she says.

They have always ploughed their savings back into the business but, with the decline of the fur trade, cannot sell it.

“I am more outgoing than my husband,” she adds. “I think I will miss the social side, meeting the clients.”

Their compromise is to downscale the business gradually over the next two years before quitting, but Kitty finds it hard to resist ordering new supplies to keep the customers happy just a bit longer.

Next page: Couples should plan

Couples should plan
Debbie Vigoda, while charting the new retirement trend as a gerontologist, has seen its impact in her own life. When, at 74, her husband, Morris, gave up his business, Debbie, still in the midst of her career, lost sleep worrying what he would do.

“I said, ‘Would you like me to retire?’ and he said, ‘Who is going to support me in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed!’”

He was warden at their synagogue but, she says, “that wasn’t enough to keep him busy. So I made him director of mailing services, stuffing envelopes [at her office] twice a week.”

Morris was happy with the title, says his wife, and her voluntary organization found his services invaluable.

Finding solutions
So what’s the solution to out-of-sync retirement? From age 50 on, says Debbie, couples should be making their retirement plans. Unfortunately, she says, companies are providing less retirement planning for employees than they once did, although the need is greater than ever.

That need was strikingly apparent in the case of our first couple, the Aspdens. Dave was unexpectedly given “an offer I couldn’t refuse” just eight weeks in advance of retirement.

There wasn’t much time to plan, and his only idea was to improve his golf handicap. Instead, he found himself with nothing to do and increasingly depressed. Two years ago, he had a heart attack followed by a quintuple bypass operation.

Being busy key
Diane was not ready to retire, even though she does not like her factory job.

“It’s hard work as I get older with the fast pace and lifting.” She stayed, she says, because she wanted to build up their retirement nest egg and finish renovating the house—and because she liked the gang at work. She finally retired in March at 60.

Dave, meanwhile, joined a seniors group and learned woodcarving.

“I really enjoy it. I didn’t realize I was so artistic,” he says.

Several mornings a week, he also meets four buddies at a local coffee shop for a chat. And, a few months ago, he saw a sign for part-time drivers. Now, a couple of days a week, he delivers car parts.

“It’s fun driving the car and I have no worries,” he says.