After the work’s done, what next?

There are moments in your life where you just stop and ask yourself the question: “What Now?” Moments like waking up the day after you graduate. Or when you bring your newborn baby home from the hospital and set the baby carrier down.

Many folks facing retirement are just starting to wonder “What Now?”—what does life look like after work?

Typically, people facing retirement have worked long careers, spending years structuring their lives around work schedules, with limited vacation time. Friends and social events often spring from work, so it can be difficult to picture life without a job.

Often, planning for retirement involves a good financial planner, money calculators, charts and graphs—all of which are important when creating a paycheck in retirement. However, it is just as important for prospective retirees to map out what retirement truly looks like…to know the answer to “What Now?” before their last day of employment.

Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that retirement without a plan is detrimental to your health. In a study of recent retirees done by the National Bureau of Economic Research, full retirement typically led to an increase in mobility difficulties, chronic illness, and mental health decline. However, the study also found that these negative effects were often mitigated by maintaining social connections, continued activity, and part-time work or volunteer hours.

Recognizing that a stagnant retirement is dangerous, many local retirees have forged a new path in retirement. In conversations with recent local retirees, many successfully made the transition by using one of the following options:

The bridge (gap) year

Made popular by college graduates who would take a year off to travel or volunteer before beginning career employment, the bridge year strategy allows a retiree to commit to a time frame (usually six months to a year) of unstructured time.

This gives retirees time to decompress from the stress of a work schedule, gain perspective on what retirement feels like, and allows new adventures and opportunities find them organically.

Mark Keeney, recently retired in Hume, entered retirement with the intent to enjoy the freedom of unscheduled time. He says, “Not being tied to a schedule was a real advantage. We didn’t have to wait for the weekends to do things we enjoyed.”

John Kopecky, Warrenton retiree, points out another advantage of the bridge year strategy: “It has taken my wife and I the first six months of retirement to sort out all of the financial issues that retirement brings…filing for social security and Medicare, dealing with employee benefits, sorting out health insurance billing issues. We were fortunate not to have anything planned right after we retired, because it gave us the time to deal with these matters.”

Part-time employment

Local retired physician Dr. Bob Dart found that for him, golf was not the answer. While Dr. Dart enjoyed golf, he found that his hobbies alone were not satisfying in retirement. He wanted to feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, and that led him to reenter the workforce with a part-time job at the Wound Healing Center at Fauquier Hospital.

For Dart, the ability to apply his skill set as a physician in a new and different way was both challenging and rewarding.

“Working full time schedule at a demanding and stressful job is far different than working part time at a job that stretches my skills and helps others in the process,” Dart said. “The part time work is far more enjoyable!”

For many retirees, the social camaraderie and new challenge of a new job are invaluable to structuring retirement. Plus, the additional cash flow from part-time employment often adds to peace of mind about their financial picture in retirement also.

Volunteer work

For many retirees, volunteer work is extremely satisfying and rewarding. Terry Nyhous, Warrenton retiree and former town council member, has remained very active with volunteer activities throughout Fauquier County.

“I have been very lucky in having the opportunity to serve on the Lord Fairfax Community College Educational Foundation Board and on a service committee at Fauquier Health,” Nyhous said. “I have the chance to work at a different pace, and these opportunities are interesting and engaging.”

Terry knew very early in his retirement planning that he did not want the traditional retirement of golf and travel. He wanted to remain active and involved in his community. Terry uses his volunteer activities to give structure and focus to his life.

“I call my volunteer activities my calendar anchors,” he said. “I build my calendar around the few activities that I have committed to. It puts structure into my life, but still leaves me an awful lot of freedom to do the things I want to do in retirement.”

No matter what the transition path may be, most retirees that report happy and satisfying lives encourage patience with the transition process. As with any change, it takes time to fully adapt to the new, unstructured reality of retirement. With patience, and an openness to try new adventures, retirees today are changing the face of what the retired life looks like…changing their question from an anxious “Now what?” to an excited “What’s next?”

Sarah J. Yakel is a vice president and certified financial planner at The Fauquier Bank.