Skip to main content

When it’s time to retire

Senior woman relaxing in chair with novel

Many physicians need a shift in mindset to transition to a new phase of life.

When the concept of a paid retirement gained traction in the 1800s, most people saw it as a brief period of rest and reward following a lifetime of work. Workers who had pensions could collect them at 65, which at the time far exceeded their life expectancy at birth. Today, retirement has become a transition to a new phase of life that can last for decades.

Yet Canadian physicians — who typically retire around age 70 — tend to carry out little planning for what will be one of the biggest decisions of their lives. They see retirement more in terms of financial needs than lifestyle planning. They ask questions like “when can I afford to retire?” or “how much do I need to save?” But they often neglect essential issues that affect their quality of life after retirement.

You’re not alone in facing these decisions, but the nature of your work leaves you particularly vulnerable, due to:

  • a huge investment of life energy in your job
  • a hectic schedule of intellectual work that instills you with curiosity and a desire for continuous learning
  • a personal identity that’s tightly linked with your occupation
  • a sense of self-esteem and fulfillment derived largely from work accomplishments

Dr. Amy D’Aprix, a gerontologist and life transitions expert based in Toronto, recognizes that leaving the work world is a special challenge for doctors: “When they retire, both their busy schedule and their sense of purpose can be stripped away,” she says. “And if you take away a doctor’s source of self-esteem and identity, and if he or she hasn’t planned for how to replace those things when they move into a new chapter of their lives, they can get into trouble.” Planning doesn’t require formality or detail, she adds. “It’s about the things you need to think about, take action on, and have conversations about.”

Rethink your sense of purpose

Dr. D’Aprix suggests that you start by thinking about the things you love about your current life. Is it that you’re helping people? Is it that you’re contributing? “Identify what gives you a sense of purpose, then start exploring ways to maintain [those things]. Doctors are driven individuals. To go from driven to nothing is very difficult,” she says.

Re-establish your life rhythm

As much as you may enjoy freedom from rigid scheduling, you’ll likely find that you need to reconfigure how your days unfold. “People think that they’re going to live in retirement like they live on vacation,” says Dr. D’Aprix. “But vacations are sandwiched between things that give our lives meaning, and ultimately, you’re going to need some rhythm in your life. Having nothing of meaning on your calendar isn’t going to be very fulfilling.”

Reach out to form relationships

Because your work is so consuming, you may not have built a lot of friendships outside your profession. So you need to develop social support and invest in the relationships you have, especially with spouses. “In retirement, we often see spouses go through a period of disequilibrium,” says Dr. D’Aprix. Mates might acknowledge that it’s great to have you in their lives more, she adds, but they might also feel that while they appreciate having extra time with you, they still need their own activities and space.

Refresh your activities

The activities that you pursue in retirement are not just about time, but also about fulfillment. For example, volunteering in a medical context is reward enough for some, but other physicians need new challenges in different fields. Either way, “you will be replacing what’s now a big part of your life, so you have to give that a lot of thought.”

The same goes for travel, says Dr. D’Aprix, who adds that it’s the number-one answer that people say they want to do when their day job stops. “But travelling is something that we do,” she says. “It doesn’t create a day-to-day life. On the other hand, travel can enrich this new chapter of your life even more if you think about how to boost its impact. For example, you might consider travelling with groups of people who have similar interests. Now, you’re also expanding your social connections.”

Re-charge with something new

Launching new activities is easier than you might think. One tool for doing that is websites such as Meetup. “That’s a great way to start meeting people who share interests with you,” Dr. D’Aprix says. “People can start informal activities ranging from book clubs to kayaking to dinner groups or to meeting for discussion.”

Starting new things is a mindset shift that most people need in retirement, she concludes. “We’re living ever-evolving lives,” she says. “This isn’t a 20-year vacation. You’re now going to continue to create things in your life and have new experiences. This is another chapter.”