Now What Do We Do?
How these successful career people are facing up to the daunting challenges of retirement
It’s a Friday, 9 a.m., and in another life not long ago, the small group of people assembled in a Naples conference room would have been thoroughly engrossed in work by this time of day. They are hard-charging executives who’d held big titles, run divisions (or entire companies) and overseen millions of dollars in revenue. And now they’d retired and were grapping with thoughts like this:
“You go from being 100 percent totally in control of your universe to just being another ...”
“... just another person with a shopping cart.”
That’s Fran Duskiewicz, 64, (left) starting off and Margaret Holt, 72, finishing his words. Retirement, it turns out, can take a major toll on one’s psyche. The group, which includes 68-year-old Karl Williams and 73-year-old James Wedding, laugh in that “I hear ya” kind of a way. They, along with their retirement-rejecting colleague Frank Friend, an international management consultant, have gotten together at the SCORE office in Naples, where they mentor fledgling entrepreneurs, to talk about the shift from work to retirement.
The employed may cling to an image of retirement bliss—golf mornings, lunch outings and lazy poolside afternoons. Retirees appreciate those opportunities, but many find a dark side to the golden years, too: a labyrinth of emotional, social and psychological challenges that older adults must navigate in order to find fulfillment in their post-career lives.
“I kept playing golf. I did all the lunches, the lady lunches. They were quite nice ... but then one day I noticed I was making all the spoons go the same way in the drawer and then I did the same to the forks,” says Holt, who ran an executive training firm headquartered in New York City.
The transition comes easier to some than others, apparently.
“It’s a small guilt, the thought that I should be doing something. Why am I sitting here reading the newspaper at 11 o’clock?” says Wedding, who oversaw U.S. operations for Molex Inc., an electronics component manufacturer.
We met one-on-one and in small groups with a number of area retirees. The newly “liberated” share what they’re grappling with and the longer-term ones offer guidance on how they navigated the same.
Retirement—at least at this point in life—had not been part of Duskiewicz’s plans.
“I thought, ‘I’m gonna go on forever because I’m in control of my own destiny.’ Yeah, right,” he says. In 2014, his boss, John MacDougall, fell sick, died and left Duskiewicz with the responsibility of selling the company, Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes, a convenience store chain based in New York state.
“You’ll never go through anything more stressful until you try to sell a company,” Duskiewicz remembers. He closed the sale a few months after MacDougall’s death and stayed on until the morning he found himself locked out of the operating system. “I walked down to the guy in charge of the integration and said, ‘I’m done.’”
“When you’re operating a business that’s 365 and 24/7, you develop this kind of bunker mentality. These people not only work for you and work with you, but they are your social structure,” says Duskiewicz, who moved to Naples a year and a half ago. “The business became our entire social lives.”
Golf? Not for him, thanks. Another job? Maybe. He does some consulting and would love a part-time job that taps his skills and affords professional interaction. Such positions, however, are in short supply.
“When you look at the want ads in the paper, there’s nothing there, and I don’t know what kind of job opportunities exist in Southwest Florida for someone with a substantial business background or someone who doesn’t want to be a salesman or work behind a desk in one of these resorts.”
So Duskiewicz remains in limbo. He consults some. He writes some for a trade publication. He volunteers some for SCORE, which he loves because the up-and-coming entrepreneurs remind him of his younger self. But he’s still unwinding, still searching.
“Most of us were successful because of our minds and our brains and our abilities, and you don’t just shut that off. It’s not like we worked 30 years on the assembly line, and we’re happy to get off. You can’t disengage your head.”
Know thyself (and thine spouse, too)
For Robert Delamontagne, retirement initially was a bust.
“I probably read something like 50 books on retirement, so I thought I was ready for it. But what happened was, about two or three months in, I started to have—I wouldn’t call it depression—but I just didn’t feel like myself. I felt irritable. I would get up in the morning and not know what I wanted to do. I felt lost,” says Delamontagne, an educational psychologist and pioneer in the online learning industry. He splits his time between Pennsylvania and Marco Island. This was a guy who was used to being busy—10 to 12 hours a day busy building and managing his company. A guy who loved the adrenaline rush that comes with corporate success (he calls it “achievement addiction”). A guy who defined himself by his work. “I worked all the time, but I got a lot of pleasure from it,” he says.
And so Delamontagne did what any good psychologist does—he researched, he looked within, and then he wrote a book, The Retiring Mind: How to Manage the Psychological Transition to Retirement.
“I was thinking I was the only person on earth who had this problem. It’s something I had never heard anybody talk about,” he says. Conversations with similarly successful people proved otherwise—the post-retirement funk was a very big problem.
At the heart of it, Delamontagne says, is personality. Certain temperaments are just going to struggle with going from head honcho to, well, the guy pushing the shopping cart.
His book explores nine personality types, or enneagrams, and identifies the types who are most likely to struggle with retirement (his), and the ones most likely to roll with whatever this new life throws their way (his wife’s). It includes strategies for managing one’s new life based on his or her attributes. Delamontagne—hard-charging, contemplative, introverted—found his peace by determining five endeavors that were most important to him (including reading, fitness, and managing his historic Pennsylvania farmhouse and 30-acre property) and then allotting his time accordingly.
Finding individual fulfillment, though, is only part of the equation. For couples, learning to cohabitate full-time as seniors is nearly as complicated as it was as newlyweds.
“I had the capacity to work very long hours by myself. My wife needs more social activity than I do. When you match up our (personality) types, it’s clear there will be a conflict point,” says Delamontage, who went on to write another book, Honey, I’m Home: How to Prevent or Resolve Marriage Conflicts Caused by Retirement. The couple has learned to compromise: He’ll accompany her on social outings—but only for a predetermined length of time.
“I think self-awareness is key,” he says.
A reinvented self
Work was beginning to wear down Karl Williams, and it’s no wonder why. He was general manager of technology for General Electric, overseeing engineering organizations for GE businesses around the globe.
“I was really looking forward to retirement. I retired at 60. I was getting really burned out. All I wanted to do was play golf,” says Williams, now 68. “We decided to move to Naples (from Connecticut). I spent two or three months lying around, and then I decided I was getting too depressed doing that.”
Williams started exploring. He took an acting class and then auditioned successfully for a couple of roles with The Naples Players. The evening rehearsal schedules proved too intense for his liking, but he stayed on as a board member and then delved into another interest, environmentalism, as a Conservancy of Southwest Florida volunteer. (He’s now chairman of volunteers.) He’s also the assistant district director for SCORE.
In 2010, opportunity knocked, and Williams answered. A fellow Naples resident approached him about starting a company that employed ozone technology to purify air and water. Williams agreed, becoming chief technology officer of O3 Hygienics.
“I didn’t think I wanted to go back to a high-stress job, but I wanted something in between,” Williams says. He dictates his own schedule, carving time out for volunteerism and engagements with his wife. “I still think I’m retired. I used to work 60 to 70 hours a week. Now it’s 40 to 50.”
And the best part: He gets his “man cave,” his O3 office. “I can leave every day in the morning and come home at night.” Boredom successfully eliminated.
Florida-bound—for better or for worse
He loves sand and sun and outdoors. She misses the rhythm of the seasons, the small-town quiet, her Colonial-style home. What’s a retired couple to do? Massachusetts natives Joe and Vicki Nishanian (right) have been coming to Florida for some 25 years, and this year they decided to make it their full-time home, moving into the townhouse they’d been using as a rental property. Joe, a salesman in wholesale foods and later in the insurance industry, is the kind of guy you could plop down anywhere. “I love being on the road. I love to travel. In fact, when I met her, I said, ‘I hope you like to travel because we’re going everywhere.’”
And they have (every continent except Antarctica), and that was fine, except Vicki didn’t realize how attached she was to their New England home base.
“What’s funny is when I just came down to visit, I loved (Naples). I didn’t realize how much I would miss New England,” she says. “I have pictures in my phone of fall and the leaves.”
To which her good-humored husband retorts, “How can you dislike looking at the sunshine, at the fountains everywhere ... the beautiful sunsets, the rainbows. I think we saw more of them this summer than we did in our whole lives.”
“I just don’t feel as restricted here,” he adds. “I’m more comfortable out of the house.”
“And I’m more comfortable in the house,” says his wife, who sold vintage clothing and antiques after spending 25 years at a law office.
The Nishanians are determined to work things out: They walk twice daily. They’re working on the town house. They’re cultivating interests (he loves research and current affairs; she’s investigating the antiques scene; they jointly enjoy visiting The Baker Museum). They’re trying to get to know other retirees. And, they’re still traveling, so frequently that Vicki hasn’t had a chance to fully unpack. But some of their chosen destinations are now in-state, another step in adjusting to their new cultural and climate reality.
“The whole point is to not just enjoy the weather but to get involved; to do the things we weren’t able to do while we were up north. We just wanted to become more active. It’s that use it or lose it,” Joe says.
The couple is confident they’ll work things out. Maybe a summer trip back north will ease Vicki’s homesickness. Maybe, ultimately, they’ll do the snowbird thing. Or maybe, Vicki will learn to appreciate Florida the way her husband has. It’s just too soon to know.
And that harkens back to the final point Delamontagne, the part-time Marco resident and retirement author, makes: Don’t rush big decisions.
“You might not be in equilibrium. You might be trying to solve your emotional problems by changing your life,” he says. “I almost bought a beach house that I probably couldn’t afford in a location I didn’t like. ... Then a year or two went by and I found the house on Marco. It was exactly the right decision.
“I use the term ‘marination.’ If you let life marinate for a little while, you’ll be better off.”
Have a plan and go slow
Alan Jaffe was perched at the top of the legal field. A specialist in labor and employment law, he was a partner at Proskauer Rose, a 142-year-old firm with some 700 attorneys. In the late 1990s, he took over as chairman—the equivalent of CEO—and held the post until he hit its term limit in 2006. He faced a choice: Return to his former position or retire. Not wanting to push aside the younger associates, Jaffe chose the latter.
“I had thought about retiring, and even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, the day I stepped down as chairman of my firm, and there was no line of people outside my office, and the phone wasn’t ringing every 2 seconds, it was like being dropped in a bucket of ice water.”
Jaffe’s mantra: Have a plan. Have a plan. Have a plan.
He focused on community service, a natural fit, as his firm had insisted on it, and he had served on high-profile nonprofit boards. In retirement, he accepted positions on several, including: chairman of the Educational Alliance, an organization in New York City that serves thousands of people a year; vice chairman of the New York Legal Assistance Group, the city’s second-largest public-interest law firm; president of the Jewish Community Relations Council in New York; and vice chairman of Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in the Berkshires, where Jaffe and his wife, Liz, have a summer home.
“For the first five, six, seven years I still needed that active, constant involvement in something, albeit something different and not the 60 to 70 hours and the crises that come with a career,” he says.
Today, living most of the year in Naples, Jaffe, 77, has tapered off his involvement. “The need for that total immersion shifts a bit. I didn’t need to be on six boards at the same time, running from this thing to that thing. I reduced the number of commitments, and today I have it down to three or four things, yet it is still very much a piece of who I am and who my wife is.”
Jaffe serves on the board of Jewish Family and Community Services of Southwest Florida, which runs the nonsectarian Naples Senior Center. His wife volunteers there as well. He also enjoys taking enrichment classes through Florida Gulf Coast University’s Renaissance Academy and attending lectures hosted by the Naples Council on World Affairs.
“Whatever it is, you need to do something to keep yourself relevant, and relevancy can be defined in a number of ways,” he concludes. “But if you’re not relevant, you’re gonna wither.”
Staving off loneliness
Spiky-haired and irreverent, Judie Klein (left) is a New Jersey gal—brash, independent, a take-the-bull-by-the-horns kind of woman. She likes to talk, and her tone is bright in describing her life’s delights: two daughters, a gift shop and ice cream parlor she founded, a lifelong commitment to volunteerism and a 48-year marriage to Bill, a civil engineer whom she’d met on a blind date. But then, suddenly, her voice cracks.
“After the store sold and all the merchandise was taken out, I went in and I said to myself, ‘What am I gonna do the rest of my life? What are you gonna do when ... you’ve done the same thing for 35 years and you’ve been with the same man for 48?”
Her husband, who’d fought prostate cancer, died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer. He’d known about the diagnosis and its terrible prognosis for two years. He never told Klein, keeping her in a state of peaceful ignorance and himself free of drugs and doctor’s appointments until he collapsed on the couch one morning and then had to confess the truth. That’s the kind of marriage they had. In 2013, she moved to Naples, chasing warmth and a new life. By herself. At age 72.
“Being a widow is hard. It stinks. It really, really stinks,” she admits over coffee one morning. “To be accepted as one into a couple’s world is hard.”
But she’s seen her friends from back home isolated by the curses of aging—one by dementia, one by severe pain, another by an all-consuming caregiving role. She’s watched them diminish and knows how important it is to stay connected.
“If you don’t keep yourself going, you’re dead. The object of it is (to) keep mobile, keep walking, keep exercising, eat proper, drink a lot of water ... and have a good support system,” Klein says.
And so, watch out Naples, here she is. She’s joined the homeowner’s association board at her condominium complex in the Vineyards. She has a group of girlfriends who go out on the town together, and she’s thrown herself into volunteerism with the Jewish Federation, which had buoyed her in those initial years after Bill’s death, and with the Naples Senior Center, where she manages the kitchen on Wednesdays for the weekly communal meal and on Fridays she helps center clients with their technology-related problems. She has some sort of obligation almost every day.
“It gives me such satisfaction to know I’m doing something good for other people,” she says.
And then she adds: “You just have to keep persevering.”
Type A all the way
Self-awareness is what Margaret Holt, the cutlery organizer extraordinaire, had to master.
“For me, I sort of lost my identity,” she says.
She’s the epitome of the Type A personality, as exemplified in this exchange about a script she and her sister are co-authoring exploring their native West Virginia:
“It’s fearful. Can I really write a play?” she wonders aloud during the conversation at the SCORE office.
“You have nothing to lose,” reassures Wedding, himself an aspiring author.
“Only my own self,” she replies. “I have to be good at it.”
Her research is wholehearted. So is her dedication to SCORE Naples, where she serves as co-chair. Where she used to celebrate her company’s successes, she now finds satisfaction in seeing her clients’ small businesses flourish.
“Retirement just took a whole piece away from me, so gradually it’s being filled up,” she says.
To those yet to find a meaningful use of time, she warns: “Your priorities can get too small. ... You start to realize your toe hurts. You don’t have anything to think about.”