If the thought of Elderhostel doesn't excite you, you're not alone. Despite what financial-planning commercials show, not every retiree wants to tour Italy with other seniors, nor do they want to babysit their grandchildren full time, says psychologist Robert P. Delamontagne, PhD, author of the 2010 book "The Retiring Mind." Thriving during this life stage, he says, requires you to pinpoint the activities that keep you as engaged — or even more so — as you were during your career.
Unfortunately, such post-career fulfillment eludes many retirees. "Most people don't know what makes them happy," he adds. "You have to really learn to understand yourself during this period."
Here's guidance from seven psychologists who found their post-career niche.
W. Rodney Hammond, PhD Berkeley Lake, Ga.
Retired in: 2011 as head of the Division of Violence Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
His adventure: Hammond draws on his psychology training and leadership skills to serve as head of the Planning and Zoning Commission of his town of Berkeley Lake, Ga. In that role, Hammond makes decisions about public land use and development and keeps builders in compliance with city code. It's a job that often involves expert negotiating skills, such as when a homeowner wants to build too close to a neighbor or a developer needs to include more green space in his office building plans. "It can be an exercise in balancing interests that has been very rewarding," he says.
When he's not donning a hard hat: Since his zoning position ends in January, Hammond ran for City Council this fall — and won. To stay involved in the mental health field, he is also serving on the Carter Center's mental health task force, on APA's Task Force on Gun Violence, and on the Board of Trustees for a local child foster care agency called Neighbors to Family. The agency works to keep siblings together in foster care based on research findings that Hammond often touted during his time at the CDC. "If you can keep siblings together, the long-term outcomes for these children are much better," he says.
His advice: Learn the art of declining opportunities gracefully without closing the doors on prospects that might be more appealing down the road, he says. "You really have to manage your time in the face of many, many opportunities that, if you are not careful, will consume you," he says. Hammond also makes sure that his service responsibilities can fit between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day. The rest of his time he devotes to leisure activities, such as walking with his wife or swimming laps. He encourages fellow psychologists to embrace their versatile skill sets when they consider their post-retirement possibilities. "Psychology prepares you for anything," he says.
Jon Esty, PhD Ridgway, Colo.
Retired in: 1997 from his job as a psychologist at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan, in Denver.
His adventure: Long before he loved psychology, Esty loved trains and politics. "I was head of ‘Kids for Eisenhower' in my [eighth grade] homeroom," he remembers. Four years before retirement, Esty got reacquainted with his first loves: He joined a grassroots advocacy effort to preserve rail transit in Colorado and to save Denver's historic Union Station from being turned into a convention center.
Once he retired from Fort Logan, Esty volunteered full time as a lobbyist to the Colorado Legislature for the advocacy group, now known as the Colorado Rail Passenger Association. "It was just like a full-time job, and I didn't care at all that I wasn't getting paid," says Esty, who also served 15 years as the association's president.
He and his colleagues saved Union Station, helped to pass a state requirement to monitor rail resources more closely and established a bus line that connects Denver's train line with one in Raton, N.M. They also worked to pass a local sales tax increase for transit that is funding additions to a light/commuter rail system in the Denver metropolitan area including the new service to Denver International Airport and Golden, Colo. His background as a psychologist was an asset throughout his advocacy work.
"Early on, I told the people at the Department of Transportation I didn't know anything about civil engineering," says Esty. "They said, ‘Look, the problem here is egos, you have to manage pretty big egos, and if you can manage that, you'll be just fine.'"
When he's not promoting rail: Esty and his wife now live in Ridgway, Colo., near the scenic San Juan Mountains in an "earthship" house made of recycled tires packed with earth. The house is heated and powered by solar energy. "We've always loved this part of Colorado, and we've always wanted to live ‘off the grid,'" he says. He raises vegetables in his greenhouse and is actively involved in the local community garden.
His advice: Embrace your natural curiosity and learn something new. "Most psychologists think of learning as a lifelong process, and it doesn't need to stop when you cease your regular daily schedule," says Esty.
Linda Moore, PhD Columbia, S.C.
Retired in: 2006 from private practice.
Her adventure: When Moore was ready to retire, she sold her Columbia, S.C., office building and bought 50 acres in Columbia with the proceeds. In 2008, she opened the Howlmore Animal Sanctuary, a shelter for cats and dogs that need special medical care due to age, sickness, disability, abuse and neglect.
Along with three full-time employees and 40 volunteers, Moore works with local veterinarians to get the animals the medical care they need to be adopted. Often the animals have emotional wounds as well, she says. Among them was Banjo, a 6-year-old Chow who needed multiple surgeries to remove a deeply embedded puppy collar left on by his owners. "He was also traumatized from being left outside with no shelter and little food or water," she says. After months of training and care, Banjo recently visited a local middle school as part of a lesson on animal care and seemed to have found his calling, says Moore. "I was astonished at how well behaved he was," she says. "He was so excited that the kids were excited to see him."
Moore fields referrals from up and down the East Coast, sheltering 30 to 40 animals at a time. Moore and her team screen adoptive families carefully and have placed 70 animals since they opened. But some animals have been at Howlmore since it opened and may stay permanently because they require more medical care than most families can provide.
Between managing her staff and overseeing the volunteers, the facility and the animals' care, Moore estimates she works longer hours than when she was in private practice. "This is the hardest job I have ever loved," she says.
Her newest trick: Moore is becoming an expert fundraiser to keep the sanctuary up and running. She has held a rummage sale, participated in charity events with local churches and department stores and is organizing a donor party for the sanctuary's fifth anniversary. "We do everything but stand on street corners with a tin cup," says Moore.
Her advice: Find something that makes it exciting to get out of bed every day, she says. "Dying of boredom would be the worst way to go."
Ernie Lenz, PhD Austin, Texas
Retired in: 1995 as chief of psychology at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.
His adventure: Lenz moved to Saudi Arabia to teach instructors curriculum development at the Allied Health Sciences School for the Saudi Arabian National Guard. When he returned to the United States at age 66, he earned a master's in public health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. in 2003.
After 9/11, Lenz felt drawn back to service. He applied to the Peace Corps and spent two years training Guatemalan school teachers how to use behavioral reinforcement to teach children such healthy habits as regular hand washing. "What we did in Guatemala was a pre-emptive, strategic strike against disease," the former Army Special Forces officer says.
Back in the Army: These days, Lenz is consulting for the Army and travels back and forth to Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Benning, Ga., to conduct fitness-for-duty evaluations for soldiers who volunteer for Special Forces duty and to screen soldiers for leadership positions. Lenz also sails, travels and goes backpacking with his grandchildren.
His advice: "Do a self-assessment of your skills and ask yourself where in the community you could give back," he says. "Psychologists make good coaches and good mentors."
Michael Sullivan, PhD Columbia, S.C.
Retired in: 2005 from his role as APA's assistant executive director for state advocacy in APA's Practice Directorate
His adventure: Sullivan became licensed as a community property manager in Tampa, Fla, where he moved with his wife from Arlington, Va., when they both retired. "I wanted to try something very different from psychology," he says. He spent two years working with condominium association boards managing building contractors and landscape engineers before he and his wife became "half-backs"— retirees who decide Florida isn't for them and move half way back home. Now, Sullivan is one of Columbia's busiest volunteers. He delivers food to the elderly through Meals on Wheels, where he was first runner-up for the group's National Volunteer of the Year award. Every Wednesday, he works at Linda Moore's Howlmore Animal Sanctuary to exercise special-needs dogs. "I was always standoffish with dogs, and now I'm a dog lover," he says.
Sullivan and his wife also teach line dancing at a local restaurant and through various local organizations, including a local homeless shelter. He stays involved with psychology by serving as treasurer of the South Carolina Psychological Association and as a member of Div. 31 (State, Provincial and Territorial Psychological Association Affairs). "The skills I acquired working with leaders and various boards at APA, I've just transported into new contexts and settings," says Sullivan.
Why retirement suits him: Sullivan approached retirement head-on. "I had zero adjustment period," he says. "I just wanted to plunge right into enjoying things." With volunteering, he says, "one thing leads to another, and then you have a whole new life for yourself."
His advice: Lend a hand to one of the countless organizations that need help, especially those that need psychologists' expertise, says Sullivan, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea in his 20s. "It's a great way to find things that give meaning to your life."
Rodney R. Baker, PhD San Antonio
Retired in: 2004, after 40 years as a psychologist and administrator at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
His adventure: As a co-author of APA's "Psychology and the Department of Veterans Affairs" and several other volumes on the VA psychology history, Baker had plenty of experience with technical writing. But he wanted to try his hand at fiction during retirement. So he joined the San Antonio Writer's Guild. Week after week, he took pages of his novel to the guild meetings, squirming uncomfortably as fellow members read his work aloud and gave suggestions.
After two years of fine-tuning copy and toughening up, Baker self-published "The Rune Master Saga," a historical novel about a 16-year-old girl growing up in ninth-century Norway. He is now writing a sequel. He used his self-publishing experience to help his son-in-law, Lt. Col. Paul Schulze, publish the book "50 Letters from Iraq" from the correspondence Schulze sent to his son Hunter while he was deployed in Iraq in 2009. Baker hopes to market the book to other families of deployed military personnel.
When he's not writing: Baker regularly dons Old West attire to attend Single Action Shooting Society competitions at which members fire pre-1900 revolvers, shotguns and rifles. Baker, a Texas history buff, was hooked after attending one meeting as a guest. "I noticed how much fun people and families were having in their cowboy clothes," he says. "They even served a chuck-wagon meal to participants. I just had to try it." Each member has an Old West alias: His is "Shot-Doc." He also writes essays about the Old West on his website.
His advice: "A good retirement is doing what you want, as much as you want and whenever you want," he says. "If you're not doing that, you have only one person to talk to."
Ellen Cole, PhD Albany, N.Y.
Retired in: 2010 from Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, where she directed the master's of science in counseling psychology program.
Her adventure: Cole's retirement came too early — when she and her husband moved to Albany, N.Y., for his dream job. Her determination to stay positive despite missing Alaska sparked a bright idea: Cole pursued a second master's degree — in positive psychology — from the University of Pennsylvania, a hybrid program that required her to be on campus in Philadelphia only three days each month. At age 70, she is the school's oldest graduate.
"Some of the faculty would ask, ‘Are you really learning anything?'" she says. "I did, and I had the time of my life. I was completely one with the students and I put my grades on the refrigerator."
The experience also rekindled her passion for teaching, so she became a "roving professor" once she graduated. Cole now works as a visiting professor of psychology at the College of St. Rose in Albany, where she is "back at the bottom of the totem pole," teaching introduction to psychology for the first time in her career. She also teaches psychology to high school students at a private school, The Albany Academies. "Students are such free spirits at that age," she says. "Their youthful energy makes me happy to go to class."
When she's not teaching: Along with a childhood friend, Cole also manages 70candles.com, a blog where women over 70 share their experiences about growing older, leaving their careers, caring for parents or spouses and other late-in-life joys and challenges. The project grew out of Cole's master's thesis project for which she conducted focus groups with women in their 70s. The blog caught the attention of the Huffington Post, which asked her to write a regular column for women in their 70s. "I am enjoying it so much more than academic writing," she says.
Her advice: Reach out to other people, says Cole, who connects with her peers though tennis and two book clubs and with her high school students by attending their soccer, basketball and lacrosse games. "To quote positive psychologist Chris Peterson, ‘Other people matter,'" she says. "That's where I get my energy from in my so-called retirement years."
Letters to the Editor
- Send us a letter