Retirement involves much more than financial well-being and medical coverage. What about the stuff no one likes to talk about … feelings?! After all, you are human. The reality is that retirement involves a degree of psychological and emotional adjustment. What happens when you sign your retirement paperwork and are no longer a peace officer? Not surprisingly, your signature doesn’t mean that you are now well-adjusted to civilian life.
Retiring from a career in law enforcement poses unique challenges to your psychological, emotional and physical health compared to other professions. In addition to being part of the law enforcement family, police work involves significant lifestyle changes related to shift work, sleep deprivation, dietary changes, exposure to traumatic events and the biological ups and downs of adrenaline and cortisol produced throughout your career. Police work also impacts your relationships with family and friends. When you retire, your usual routine and lifestyle abruptly change. All of these changes will result in a period of adjustment that is normal and often temporary. The key is knowing what to expect and having the tools and resources needed to prepare for and adapt to these changes.
In a 2018 survey of sworn retirees at a large law enforcement agency, 40% indicated that they experienced unexpected issues adjusting to retired life. Of this group, half reported experiencing emotional and psychological reactions, including loss of identity and purpose, disbelief, anxiety, depression, boredom and difficulty relaxing. Regarding work-related critical incidents, one out of every four respondents indicated that traumatic stress reactions emerged after their retirement, and nearly one-third of all respondents indicated that they continued to experience critical incident stress reactions, not only before they retired, but also afterward. The most frequently endorsed stress reactions among this retiree group were intrusive memories, frequent recall of the incident, anxiety, panic, depression, anger and sleep difficulty. Despite the adjustment-related challenges experienced by this group of sworn retirees, the vast majority reported feeling satisfied with the quality of their retired life. This finding suggests that, although there may be a period of discomfort during the initial adjustment to retirement, most people will eventually settle into retired life.
So what are some things you can do to better prepare yourself for the emotional and psychological adjustment to retirement?
- Start engaging in outside law enforcement activities and hobbies. This might take some experimentation, but try to be open to different experiences and activities. It may help to think about things you used to do or things you have always wanted to try.
- Start forming friendships with people who are outside of the law enforcement culture. Staying connected with others can help buffer against isolation, depression and stress. Although you may be tempted to surround yourself with people who understand law enforcement culture, this can limit your social resources after retirement and might lead to increased feelings of loss and isolation. Additionally, you could risk reinforcing cynical thinking and unhealthy behaviors after retirement that can impact your overall physical and psychological health.
- Consider volunteering and/or finding a part-time job. This will keep your mind sharp, keep you active and can foster a sense of purpose helping others or giving you a structure/routine. If possible, take at least six months to allow your body and mind to adjust before starting post-retirement work.
- Take inventory of how you view yourself. Explore the many parts of your personal identity: cop, friend, spouse, mentor, educator, son/daughter, parent, etc. Begin spending more time improving the parts of your identity outside of the job so that other aspects of your identity are well developed.
- Do your homework. Take the time to do your own research to better understand the emotional and psychological adjustment to retirement. There are several online resources and books on this topic that you can find by doing an internet search. Talk with other retirees about their experiences adjusting to retirement.
- Consider attending counseling to resolve any existing issues or concerns, and/or learn additional tools and skills to facilitate a healthy adjustment to retired life. Oftentimes, cops will begin reflecting on their careers as they near retirement — the good and the bad. This can evoke different emotions and thoughts about self, others and the world. Confidential counseling can help you process your career and identify any issues that need more specific attention, as well as teach you additional coping skills to navigate the retirement adjustment. It may also help to identify other supportive resources in case you need them.
When the big day comes, ask a trusted partner to be there when you drop off your gear and sign your retirement paperwork. Grab a cup of coffee or a bite to eat after. As with other aspects of life, there may be some trial and error and growing pains as you adjust to retirement. Take it one day at a time until you establish your new routine.