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The Fullness of Midlife

“Control Is Largely an Illusion”

“Control Is Largely an Illusion”

by Dr. Barb DePree MD

Karen WassinkA psychotherapist for 42 years, Karen Wassink has practiced in a variety of settings, including inpatient and outpatient as well as private practice. She studied at Michigan State University and Wayne State University. She’s diversified her own interests, singing with the Holland Chorale, gardening, entertaining, and assuaging her lifelong love of reading and learning. She and her partner Jay have six children and 13 (soon to be 14) grandchildren. 


Dr. Barb: Karen Wassink Bylsma is a therapist specializing in helping clients with transition, particularly the transition to retirement. Our physical health is affected by many factors, including stress, and transition often includes stress. So we've invited Karen to be our guest today to help us understand the transition of retirement and how to better prepare for it. Welcome, Karen.

Karen: Thank you, Barb. Thanks for having me.

Dr. Barb: Sure. We should know right off the bat that for some of us, retirement is entirely our plan and under our control, but others of us might hit an age ceiling or a downsizing in our work environment. So, is there a difference in the way we respond that correlates with the amount of control we have of the situation?

Callout: Control is largely an illusion. There's lots of choice and lots of influence...Karen: I'm certain that that's true. I often tell my patients that control is really largely an illusion. There is very little control in life, lots of choice and lots of influence, but not much control. But the sense of control is crucial in a transition like this. So, if you're forced out by the downturn of your company or laid off in some way, or [because of] health, I think it's going to be a very different experience than if one strove for retirement, worked for it, was eager for it, and chose it. It's going to be very, very different in terms of how it feels.

Dr. Barb: So many of us look forward to retirement, but I'm guessing that as with any time of transition, it comes with some fear and anxiety. I certainly hear this in the women I speak with; kind of that sense of achievement of having arrived, but also that truly, fear and anxiety. So, can you talk a little bit more about that and what we can expect?

Karen: Most change of any kind brings anxiety, so that part of it is certainly normal. I think the things specific to retirement have to do with just how much change there is. There's a loss of a role, so that can mean status. It can mean self-worth if that's where people hang their self-worth. It can mean a sense of purpose and these things are—the workplace that provided that—is leaving, and so those things get very shaken. It changes routine dramatically. People that can't sleep past 5:45 in the morning, and they get to retirement and they think they'll sleep in, and they can't sleep in because the change of their routine is profound, and it takes a long time to adapt.

I think a sense—of I'm still working—, but you and I are both in the age where we're probably looking at this down the road in maybe the not too terribly distant future. And for me, to keep earning my own money feels very different than the idea that I'm not earning my own money anymore, and I don't have as much sense of control over my own destiny.

Now, earning your own money doesn't really give you control either, but it sure feels like it, and it is more controlled than when you're dependent on say, Social Security or the investments or monies that you saved and hope they're enough. So there's an awful lot of things that feel uncertain, and a lot of things are just new and unfamiliar, even if they were welcomed and we were looking forward to it. I think a lot of people are struck by, "My goodness, nothing feels the same," and they feel ill at ease about that. It takes a little time. I think people find their stride. But I think, boy, at first it's really unsettling.

Dr. Barb: So, what tools can you recommend to better anticipate or prepare for this? What specifically might women, or maybe it's their partners that are anticipating the retirement, and the adjustment is accommodating that.

Callout: People have to think about retirement much sooner, not only from the financial standpoint...Karen: Yes. And that's two different creatures, isn't it? If we're speaking mostly to women on this, whether you're a woman married to someone who's retiring, or living with someone who's retiring, or whether you're on your own or with your partner, you are the one earning an income. All those things are going to make it different. But how to prepare, I think people have to think about it much sooner than they do, from not only the financial standpoint, but emotionally and situationally and routine wise. So it helps to know yourself a bit more, know what it is you need, what you value, what you're going to need when this change comes as fast as you can imagine it, starting maybe with what matters most to you when you think about not working and being in retirement. Is that time? Is that choice? Is that, “I'm still going to need people or a purpose?”

How creative can you be about creating the environment and the lifestyle that retirement is, rather than just having it foisted upon you? And I think to talk to other people who have recently gone through it, or are maybe still going through some of the adjustment, can be very helpful. Because it's like when you're going to have a baby and everyone tells you, “Oh, this is really going to change your life,” but you have no idea, really have no idea. But talk to some people who are going through it, and have been through it, and they can help with some things they wish they had done.

Dr. Barb: Yeah. Interesting. I have individuals ask about support groups for things like this. And many people are very surprised by the degree of adjustment required. So along that line, are there formal networking groups that exist for individuals trying to make this transition as successfully as possible?

Karen: I haven't done any research on it, I must admit, but I don't remember ever hearing of a support group for retirement. Wouldn't that be great? Maybe I'll do that. [laughs]

Dr. Barb: I know, I know. I think about it, it's sort of like my book club, maybe you don't have to get together every month, but just sharing ideas and discoveries.

Karen: Yeah. Yeah, that's a good idea.

Dr. Barb: Anyway, I certainly have had many individuals ask about that.

Karen: I think that AARP is a resource for many people. They have lots of publications. I would guess if anyone knows, it's them, about things that might be more available. But a support group of people, even a blog. And maybe there are such things. I haven't looked into it, but that would be a great thing where people could shoot out a question and hear six people respond. It's a really good idea.

Dr. Barb: So when you talk about preparing in advance, is it a three-year ramp that you should be looking at if possible? What would be the ideal situation of looking forward and being as prepared as possible?

Karen: When you first asked that question, I was thinking about that and I thought we probably ought to start thinking about it in our 30s. It's ridiculous because it wouldn't mean anything. I remember being in my 30s, and the thought of retirement—other than maybe thinking about IRAs in the day—there was nothing else I could have even gotten close to about that. So I think it's got to be closer to the time, but three years, two/three years I think makes some sense, when again, people are choosing, and health and other things haven't forced it. But I think just to begin to wonder about it, pick up an article about it, talk to somebody else about it, talk to your spouse or others that it's going to affect directly at home, and just begin to open it up.

To me, it's like leaving open a file folder and letting information and experiences and wisdom come into that folder, even if you don't know yet what your questions are. And let that stuff sort of accumulate. But I think people have to talk, they have to talk to each other and they have to talk to other people that have gone through it. But I do think you're right that it needs to be a few years out. I know some people that have retired and haven't had a single discussion in the home of how that's going to be until the first day that somebody's home. They find their way, but it probably would have been a lot easier if they spoke about it.

Dr. Barb: And how is the discussion different for women who are approaching retirement and maybe are single, either by choice or by widowhood? Is there a different discussion, or is there a different set of factors that those women are likely to consider, versus those who are in a relationship?

Karen: I think for women, because of child bearing and child rearing years, and also because there still isn't totally equality and pay for women and men, I think women face it, perhaps, with more trepidation depending on the amount of money they've been able to earn and how they've saved it. But I think they face a bit more uncertainty of that. Women are very social creatures, and they need to be in clans. And sometimes a wonderful marriage, a good spouse provides a lot of that, but they'll need it outside. And their workplace may have been one of those places if they're living alone.

Callout: Women are very social creatures; they need to be in clans.So they're going to need to find some other way for that fairly regular connection, talking, processing things, just sharing things that women are very inclined, many of them anyway, to want to do. So I think they have to figure out what their daily life is going to look like, and how to put enough people in it. Now for the introverted woman out there, it'll be less people and that will be great for them, but they still will need their network in some ways. And I think any person living alone, men too, have to think of that. “What's going to be my social contact because now I'm really going to have to create it? The workplace provided so much of it, maybe more than I wanted, but now I'll have to be active in creating it.”

Dr. Barb: What about the idea of boundaries? I know many women anticipating retirement, part of it is their fear of the needs their parents will now have for them, or maybe children and grandchildren. And how can you advise women to negotiate that in being the caring grandparent and daughter, but yet still nurturing themselves? I think I hear more of women giving toward their children and grandchildren, and as that multiplies over time, finding themselves back in a really restricted place because of their time commitment to that. So do you have any words you could speak into for those women who are trying to balance that—the joy of giving and caring—but yet also recognizing their own needs at that time?

Karen: Yeah, I think that's the crucial part. As I said before, it helps to know yourself somewhat, know what you really do and don't need. And I have a lot of people in my office speaking about this too, grandmothers who are feeling very guilty that they haven't just signed up to watch their grandchildren two days, or three, or even five a week, to help their kids who are struggling. And some that don't want to do that for hardly a moment. And others who really do want to do that, and others yet who don't want to, but feel forced to. So there's lots of ways it's showing up out there. I think that people have to know what they need and want as much as possible, and they may need to talk to somebody, a friend or a therapist or anybody, to try to get a handle on that.

Callout: Set your boundaries a little tighter than you need them.And then they have to sit down with their kids and set some boundaries. Whenever I urge parents to set boundaries, I tell them, set it a little tighter than you need it because it's much easier to loosen it up than it is to have started too loose and have to tighten it up. So if you don't think you want to watch your grandkids more than a day a week, don't start with two and have to cut back. Say what you need, and say it a little tighter. And if you find, "This is going easier than I thought, I can help more," then you can step in more. And I think it is their parents too, a retired person’s parents as well. 

I know one woman I work with who has two siblings who are still working, and they just assume that she will do everything for their parents because she isn't working. And they've had to have some very tough conversations about, “Yes, just in terms of sheer time, I have that, but that doesn't mean emotionally and otherwise I'm prepared to do everything for them, even though you guys are still working.” 

So there's a lot of talking that needs to happen and a lot of expressing the needs. And I urge people to put the needs out before the solution, saying to your adult parents, saying to your adult children and grandchildren, “What are the needs? Well, here's yours, here's mine. Let's carve a solution from that,” rather than your daughter calls and says, “Mom, you're retired now. I need you to watch the kids Monday and Tuesday, okay?” And the answer is yes or no. No, no, no. Step way back and see what all the needs are before making decisions, and then say, “Here's my decision, but I may need to amend it, and you might need to amend it as we go along.” And leave some room for that.

Dr. Barb: Yeah, I think that's really good advice. And I think sometimes some assumptions are made and things take off from that without having had the opportunity to really verbalize each of the needs. So I think that's really good advice. 

What about health issues? Are you seeing many individuals who are also trying to understand how they can successfully retire, but maybe in the face of their own health issues or a partner's health issues?

Karen: It plays a role for sure, as well as the age of a partner sometimes. So some people are thinking about retiring based on the fact that one or the other of them has a health issue, or perhaps an age difference such that, “If we don't retire now and do some of the things we want to do, we may not have the opportunity, or at least not to do it as well and healthy and strong as we would've liked to do.” So that certainly figures in.

I think that people have to find ways to stay active and involved and stimulated as a way to also protect their health when they enter retirement. I think the worst thing to do would be to come home and sit on the couch for lots of reasons—for activity, and stimulus, and keeping the brain sharp, and all of the things that we are learning these days. But I think you have to look at your health. If you come from a family where everyone has died at 65 of a heart-related situation, and the ideal of I live to 75 now, I live till 90 might not be the least bit realistic. And that needs to at least be taken into account when you think, “How do I want to shape this last third, maybe quarter of my life?”

Dr. Barb: So can you summarize and say what issue you think surprises women the most about number one, their own retirement, and then maybe the retirement of their partner?

Karen: I think for women who retire, they're surprised sometimes by how much their job meant to them, and how many compromises to their own knowing themselves and slowing down they needed to do because they were probably often running a home and maybe kids as well. And it catches them off guard that, “I didn't realize what this did for me. And I realize I don't know what it's like to have this much time to find out what I think and feel. And I don't know what I think and feel, because I've been kind of busy running.” I would guess that men feel that in some ways as well. I don't mean to think it's only a woman's issue, but I think that catches a lot of people off guard. They expect the relief and, “This'll be great. I'll wake up that Monday morning and I won't have a thing to do.” And then they feel panicky and anxious and, “I don't know what it is I do, and how I want to do it at this pace.” So I think that surprises many people.

I think for people living with someone—I think of friends of ours, he retired and said he did it gradually. So the first thing he did was take Fridays off, and he said to her on Thursday, “Well this'll be great. I have all day off tomorrow. What are we going to do?” And she said, “I don't know what you're going to do, but I have plans.” So again, they hadn't really talked very much, and it went like that with every consecutive day that he started taking off. A lot of people are very caught by, “We don't know how to do daily life Monday through Friday in tandem. We don't do it that way, only on a vacation or Christmas. But we haven’t done that in 45 years, decided together what we're going to do on a Tuesday afternoon.”

And that catches a lot of people off guard. And then the, “You're not disrupting my routine.” I have women tell me, “I don't know what I'm going to do with him at home. I just, I don't even want him to be there.” And it's not that they don't love him, it's just they don't know what to do with him. And I know a lot of men are feeling like, “I've worked 40, 50 years maybe, and I want to come home and do nothing. And she's got 74 projects and 15 road trips for me.” And they're going to have to talk about how they're going to navigate this and what, again, put the needs out on the table before the plan.

Dr. Barb: How about some unexpected joys? Do you think there's some unanticipated joys that come along with retirement that maybe were unanticipated?

Karen: I think maybe to notice the small things that you're just too busy when you're working to notice. You get up and get yourself out the door, and maybe you see a sunrise and watch the whole thing instead of, “Did you catch that?” “Yeah I did.” And off you go. Maybe you see the whole thing. I think the slower pace lets a lot more things in that can be felt and processed that you just don't have time and energy for when you're working.

Callout: Notice the small things that you're just too busy for when you're working.I think the relief maybe of not carrying the burden. Depends what your work was, but I think healthcare people and teachers and many other people feel the care of the people that they're caring for. And to set that down I think will be joyful and a relief for many. Sometimes you don't know how heavy something was until you put it down and you go, “Oh my goodness, that was quite a load.” And I think work is going to feel like that for many people, more than they might have anticipated. And I think just time. If you have someone at home that you don't see a lot of with a busy life and they're across the breakfast table for 45 minutes or an hour will be lovely.

Dr. Barb: Yeah. Good. Well, thanks for your time, Karen, and speaking into this topic. And as I conclude our time together, I often like to ask the people being interviewed, where do you find fullness in life right now?

Karen: At my best, I think maybe all of us at our best, fullness in life is kind of making room for everything. And I don't mean doing everything. I mean making room inside for lots of different needs and lots of different experiences. So all work is not a good balance. Just laying around all weekend is maybe not a good balance. So for me, as much as possible, a blend of people and time alone, work and relaxation, other work that doesn't feel like work, like gardening, like I'm eager to get out today, it's a halfway nice day, do a little raking, things that brings some joy along with the responsibilities of work.

I've become more of a homebody in my last years it seems. So I spend more time home, but I still need time with family and with my husband, with kids and grandkids, and with friends. My faith community's important. So it's kind of attending to all the different needs as they roll around and come up to you and trying to be sure I do some of them. Music's been important. I sing with the Holland Chorale, and that continues to be very life-giving. I'm trying to stay with a variety of things.

Dr. Barb: Yeah. Well thank you. And it sounds like you've discovered, in your wisdom, balance.

Karen: [laughs] I keep working at it. It's one of those things we work on ‘til the last breath, I think.

Dr. Barb: Yeah. And I want to just say personally thank you for the work you do in our community assisting not only women, but others, in just being a better version of themselves with your help and discovery. So thank you for the shared benefit I have seen in specifically women in my case and my practice. But we certainly value you and what you bring to the community. So thank you.

Karen: How very nice to hear. Thank you. And you have been a very big supporter of my work, and I've been very grateful for that. It's been life-giving to me, and truly an honor to do what I've been called to do.

Dr. Barb: Good. Good. Thanks again for your time.

Karen: I appreciate it, Barb. Best to you.


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