Making the most of your retirement

Tony Cooley

Learn how you can use your retirement to make healthy lifestyle changes, and how Tony Cooley did this while dealing with heart disease.

At last, a lifetime of hard graft and pension contributions has paid off – it’s time to hang up your hat/suit jacket/work boots (delete as appropriate) and have some fun. But while you may have been dreaming of this moment since your first day at work, have you got a plan for how you’re going to spend your time? And, just as importantly, a plan B if things don’t turn out quite as you’d imagined?

When Tony Cooley was 60, he was offered early retirement from his job in the council tax department of his local council. Having worked there for 43 years, he grabbed the opportunity with open arms. Tony, from Walsall in the West Midlands, was looking forward to plenty of activities and days out with his wife Linda, but everything changed during his last month at work.

“News of my heart condition came as a devastating blow,” says Tony, now 63, who had gone to the doctor with suspected indigestion, only to be told he’d had a heart attack and needed to have bypass surgery. “I immediately thought, ‘That’s my retirement up the spout’. All my ideas about how I might enjoy myself were put on hold. I had visions of being armchair-bound, wrapped up in a shawl, not daring to move.”

Plan ahead

People can make the transition smoother by continuing to use their skills and relationships in a way that maintains what went before

While you may not be able to plan for a heart event, you can and should prepare mentally for retirement. “Retirement is like emigrating,” says Dr Derek Milne, Newcastle University psychologist and author of The Psychology of Retirement.

“Many will be faced with some difficult transitions, such as having to build up a new support network and dealing with work-related loss, such as identity and structure."

“People can make the transition smoother by continuing to use their skills and relationships in a way that maintains what went before, whether that’s in the voluntary sector or by joining a club.”

Tony is feeling fit again following successful heart bypass surgery in January 2012, a couple of months into his retirement. He attended cardiac rehabilitation sessions at a local charity, Heart Care, which he continues to go to each week. Here, he found support from other heart patients, and he was eased into physical activity.

He found that exercising gave him something to focus on. “At first, not having to go to work was strange and I struggled to stop thinking about it,” says Tony. “But then, after the operation, because I was so concerned about getting myself fit again, I was able to move on.”

Rising to the challenge

Tony Cooley in gymRetirement can bring testing times such as loneliness and changes to relationships, self-esteem and health, but how you deal with these can make all the difference.

“If you’ve had heart surgery and you have pain or physical limitations, acknowledge this and reframe any negative thoughts,” says Dr Milne. “Solve problems and reassure yourself that this is not the end – you just need to find a way of working around it.”

Dr Milne gives an example of an allotment group who haven’t let health problems get in the way of their passion. “Among the ‘allotmenteers’ are people who have had strokes, heart attacks, hip and knee replacements. They share wisdom and provide each other with practical support,” he says. “For example, one guy who’d had a stroke was helped to build raised beds that he could then work on from a wheelchair.”

He stresses the importance of social support to enable you to turn any negative thoughts around. “To have someone who knows what you’re talking about validates your feelings. People are often staggered by how similar their experiences are and it makes them realise they’re not alone.”

New beginnings

Retirement is actually better than I expected – we’ve been given a new lease of life

Whatever your situation, retirement can also offer the potential for positive change – whether that’s volunteering for a charity, resolving to eat healthily or becoming more active.

“The most successful transitions are people who see it as a growth opportunity, where things you’ve always wanted to do become possible,” says Dr Milne. “Tackle it like a new job, use all your skills and treat it like a new beginning.”

Thanks to Tony’s positive outlook and the support of others, he and Linda are now enjoying the retirement they always wanted. “We’re discovering lots of nooks and crannies around the UK to go and visit.

We recently went to the Lake District and enjoyed some of the easy walks,” he says. “Retirement is actually better than I expected – we’ve been given a new lease of life.”

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