Exploring Retirement

Welcome to the April 2015 edition of Exploring Retirement. Each month we feature articles on well-being in retirement. Martin Seligman, the founder of the Positive Psychology movement, in his book "Flourish", set out what he considers the necessary "elements" for a flourishing life. He suggests the acronym PERMA, which stands for -

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement
  • We have begun considering each element in turn, in the context of retirement. This month we are looking at relationships. Probably our most important relationship is with our spouse or partner. It is important to realise early on that retirement effects both of you and to sit down and talk openly about what you want.

    A friend of my wife stopped me in a local shopping centre recently to talk about the Exploring Retirement website. She expressed concern about three men she knew, all of whom had recently been widowed and who were finding it difficult to cope on their own. We chatted briefly about the lack of support many men experience in this situation. It is certainly a topic Ior a future issue of Exploring Retirement. If any of our readers know of organisations that offer practical support to men coping on their own, do write and tell me about them.

    Our featured retirement activity is volunteering to help vulnerable children. The topic was suggested to me by my friend, Billy Eagleson, who works for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). In the UK hardly a week seems to go past without a new scandal concerning the abuse of the young, so it is good to know that there are opportunities for older people to help make a difference.

    We continue the topic of child protection in this month's Retirement: My Way, which features a Belfast mother who decided to "give something back" as a volunteer telephone counsellor with an organisation supported by the NSPCC, called ChildLine.

    Writing team

    We have three regular contributors on our writing team. Here they are with a brief note explaining their principal areas of interest:

    John Copelton, EditorDr John Copelton - well-being in retirementMichael McSorley, contributorMichael McSorley - lively comment on sport and cultureJeannette Lewis, contributorJeannette Lewis - inspiring ideas on retirement living

    Relationships in Retirement

    Spouse or Partner

    In a recent UK survey of 660 retired people who were in a relationship, 40% admitted they needed to learn how to live with each other again now that the children had left home and they were no longer committed to work. The study also indicated one third of retirees spent much of their time arguing about silly things with their partner and 13 per cent admitted that they "irritate each other beyond belief"! Happily, 90% of the couples thought that eventually they would settle in to a happy retirement together. Let's hope so!

    For most people, and especially for most men, their closest friend is their spouse or partner. It is wonderful if you are lucky enough to have someone you can share your life with but it is also very important not to take that certain someone for granted. I met a former colleague who had retired and he told me how he had expected that he and his wife would now be able to spend more time together. Unfortunately for him she had different plans! His wife had developed a passionate interest in yoga and had retrained as a yoga teacher, with the result that she was rarely at home. He eventually returned to work on a part-time basis.

    There is much to be said for taking up hobbies or interests that get you out of the house two or three mornings per week, as you did when you went to work. This can make retirement seem less of an abrupt change and means that your spouse or partner gets some space to pursue their interests, as well as you both having more to talk about when you are at home together.


    Cross-skilling is a useful concept that refers to the need for both partners to be capable of fully functioning in the others absence. Would you be able to cope if your partner was away on an extended vacation or visiting the grandchildren? What if one of you had to go into hospital for a few weeks? One simple precaution you can easily take is to create an "emergency" reference file containing all the instruction manuals for your household appliances. It only takes an hour or so but can give peace of mind.


    In 2010 the University of Greenwich, England, carried out a study of 279 British retirees. The researchers found no difference in life satisfaction between those retirees who had children and grandchildren and those who did not. They found both benefits and drawbacks to the presence of children and grandchildren in retirement, which balance each other out.

    In the UK the national survey, Understanding Society, carried out by the University of Essex, found that one in four working families depended on grandparents for childcare. 63% of all grandparents with a grandchild under 16 were involved in looking after their grandchildren and 19% of grandmothers provided at least 10 hours of childcare per week.

    The positives are that having children and grandchildren can impart a sense of purpose and meaning in later life, while the drawbacks include taking on so much commitment to child care that it can potentially interfere with the sense of freedom and autonomy that is at the heart of a positive retirement.


    The retirement transition often includes a loss of friends and colleagues from the workplace. New friendships may eventually fill the gap but this process takes time. It was Professor Gene Cohen who pointed out that to make new friends we need to engage in stable activities where we meet people with similar interests to ourselves on a regular basis. To quote Gene "network - the more people you meet, the more people you will find to like!". It isn't easy but the reality is we have to put ourselves out there! The hardest thing I did last year was to walk into my local tennis club one evening and introduce myself to a group of total strangers. It took me three weeks to work up the courage!

    Professor Laura Carstensen has proposed that as we get older we become more selective about what we are prepared to devote our time to. Her research has shown that overall, as we get older, we become less motivated to make new friends and more motivated in the upkeep of the ones we already have. In a way it's quality, not quantity, that counts!

    Relationships and health

    A 2010 study of 308,849 individuals, followed for an average of 7.5 years, found that those with adequate social relationships had a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships. This finding remained consistent across age, sex, initial health status, cause of death, and follow-up period. The magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity).

    In the United States, Dr Steve Cole conducted a study to examine the gene expression profiles of chronically lonely people. He found that two types of white blood cells were uniquely responsive to feelings of loneliness. These cells are associated with heart disease and cancer as well as with reduced immune response. Dr Cole believes that the most "biologically toxic" aspect of loneliness is that it can make you feel chronically threatened, an emotion that can kick-start the flight or fight stress response that has a direct effect on the immune system.

    Another major US study examined the relative contributions of giving versus receiving support to longevity in a sample (>1500) of older married adults. The results indicated that mortality was significantly reduced for individuals who reported providing instrumental support to friends, relatives, and neighbours, and individuals who reported providing emotional support to their spouse. Receiving support had no effect on mortality once giving support was taken into consideration.

    This pattern of findings was obtained after controlling for demographics, personality, health, mental health, and marital-relationship variables.

    Featured Activity: Helping vulnerable children

    In the UK, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) is a major charity working with vulnerable children. Their work involves any issue which causes distress or concern, including child abuse, bullying, mental illness, parental separation or divorce, pregnancy and substance misuse. Until recently we might have persuaded ourselves that these problems affected only a tiny minority of children but now hardly a week seems to go by without another story in the news concerning the physical or sexual abuse of young people.

    The NSPCC provides a free 24-hour counselling service called ChildLine for children and young people up to their 19th birthday. ChildLine offers confidentiality to children unless their or someone else's life is in immediate danger. This is seen as one of the greatest strengths of the service, as it allows children to discuss their problems "safely" in the knowledge that no intervention will take place without their consent. Children who ring ChildLine to disclose abuse are often encouraged to seek help from "trusted adults", the aim being to protect the child from harm while causing as little ancillary damage as possible. ChildLine's counsellors are trained to use role play and empathy to build children's confidence. ChildLine offers its own training programme for volunteers who come from widely varied backgrounds, but must be over 16. Many counsellors have worked for years for the charity. The story of one of these volunteers is featured in Retirement:My Way (see below).

    Most children who contact ChildLine for information, help and support are over 11 years old. Sadly, in many cases abuse has been going on for some time. The NSPCC Schools Service was set up to reach out to and empower these younger children.The Service uses specially trained volunteers to talk to primary school children about abuse. The volunteers work in an assembly or workshop setting that aims to help under 11s understand abuse and recognise it if it occurs. To watch a short video showing the volunteers at work, click on the image below.

    Retirement: My Way

    Retirement: My Way is a recent addition to our magazine format. Each month we showcase an individual who is active in "retirement" and who has written to tell us about their experience. We hope you are enjoying this new feature and that some of you will want to share your own experience. To send us your story for publication, contact editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.

    This month Eileen McKeown, from Belfast talks about volunteering with "ChildLine". To read Eileen's article, click here.


    The Celtic Fringe - Michael McSorley

    "England and America are two countries divided by a common language" is usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw, an Irish man who lived and worked in England! This month Michael takes a look at the similarities to be found in many words and expressions in use in the "celtic" regions of the UK (Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Northern Ireland). To read Michael's article, click here

    Positive Relationships in Retirement - Jeanette Lewis

    Jeanette discusses relationships using two of her friends to illustrate - one with a positive attitude to life and one who has become more negative since she retired. As always Jeanette has some sound advice to give, with a few simple strategies for keeping your relationships positive. To read Jeanette's article click here..