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It’s Not Working

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The other day I saw a headline in AARP The Magazine about baby boomers heading for “the big 6-5.” I couldn’t help gasping. Over the last several years I’ve spoken and written a lot about the challenges of aging and retirement, but last year it really hit home when my husband and I began our own retirement process. He gave up university teaching after 45 years, while I reduced my coaching and therapy practice.

Whether or not your clients have reached (or passed) the big 65, retirement issues may loom large in their desires and anxieties. Here are some examples of how you can help them cope.

Q: You’ve heard of “boomerang kids.” How about a “boomerang retiree?” After a couple of years of golf, travel, visiting the kids and so on, my retired client is itching to return to work. His wife, who enjoys their travels together and all their social activities with other retirees, is upset by this idea. They could use the extra income—but given her strong resistance, should I support his yearning to “un-retire?”
It would be better for everyone concerned if, rather than taking one side or the other, you can help this couple find common ground. I would advise you to meet individually with each client to get a deeper sense of their longings, concerns, goals, dreams and frustrations.

If the husband’s sense of self-worth derives largely from his work identity, he may be feeling useless. Alternatively, he may be anxious about not having quite enough money for a comfortable retirement. Would he be open to part-time work, consulting or even something completely new?

Once you get clearer about where the husband is coming from, you can then meet with the wife. What has she loved about this phase of life with him? Why does she resist his returning to work? Was he a workaholic, or did his job leave her with too little to do? Ask, too, if her husband’s retirement has had any downside for her.

In both meetings, once you have heard each spouse’s desires and concerns, address the financial realities of their situation.

After these individual conversations, you can invite both clients to meet with you as a couple. Now is the time to discuss a variety of possible ways to meet the husband’s desire for work. With what you have learned about their feelings and desires, see if you can help them meet somewhere in the middle. Perhaps he would be okay with working part-time, while committing certain days or times to couples activities that his wife particularly values.

Q: A woman who cared for her disabled husband until his recent death has consulted me about some stock certificates she found in his desk. His pension ended when he died, and she is living on not much more than Social Security. She is very angry and upset with herself for not saving more when she was younger, but has pinned her hopes on her late husband having “provided for her.” I’m going to have to tell her it’s worthless, but am afraid the news will devastate her. How should I handle it?
You’re right about needing to proceed with care and sensitivity. Helping this client may require two or more meetings in which you slowly enable her to explore her situation.

Eventually she will ask you about the stock certificates, and of course you will need to tell her the truth. But first, it would be a good idea to help her take stock of her life. Find out if she has a network of support to lean on during this difficult period. Is she close to family members or friends, or active in a church group or other organization? If not, perhaps there’s a friend or relative she can regularly share a meal with, or a spiritual or community group she can participate in. Reaching out to exchange goods and services with others is a good idea not only to prevent feelings of isolation, but also to stretch a limited budget.

A second way you can help is to brainstorm with her about how to thrive on less. Be sure she understands how common her position is. Many a wife has left financial planning and preparation to her husband during their life together, only to find after he’s gone that she isn’t as well taken care of as she had believed. Consider encouraging her to consider part-time work to supplement her Social Security benefits.

You might offer other suggestions to help her feel more fulfilled and satisfied. For example, I often recommend keeping a “gratitude journal” in which you write three things you feel grateful for every day. This could help keep your client from focusing on what she doesn’t have or has been deprived of.

Q: A retired couple I see regularly are at loggerheads about their spending. After being shell-shocked by the market meltdown, he feels they should hang on to every conservatively invested dollar. She is a mainstay of several big charities in our city and wants to maintain her role as their biggest donor. I’m fairly sure there must be a happy medium here, but how do I lead them toward it?
When couples are involved in intense disagreements, it’s often useful to meet with them individually at first. As I’ve mentioned before, this allows you to hear them more deeply, to understand their concerns, needs and desires, and to create stronger personal connections.

In this case, a sensitive interview with the wife can help you see whether she refuses to admit that their finances are stressed, or simply feels embarrassed about reducing her level of giving. Women are often extremely supportive of causes they feel connected to. In fact, women at every income level give more money, more often, to charitable causes than men do, according to a 2010 study by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy.

Once you follow suit with the husband, you’ll be able to apply your professional understanding of their finances to see if they really need to “hang on to every dollar” or still have enough leeway to keep up their philanthropic giving. If their circumstances are reduced but not desperate, you can help the wife realistically adjust her giving to reflect their new situation, while encouraging the husband to relax his instinct to hunker down and hoard every penny.

Q: My client’s doctor has warned him that after decades of 80-hour workweeks, he needs to retire to a less pressured life. However, the prospect of quitting work makes him feel depressed and useless. His wife died years ago, and he believes his children and grandchildren have no interest in “the old man.” He claims he doesn’t have enough money to retire, although I’ve reassured him about this so often that I suspect it’s just an excuse to keep working. I don’t like to stand by and watch him ruin his health, but what can I do?
Does your client have any hobbies or special interests—anything that gives him pleasure in his (admittedly scant) spare time? Is he involved in any groups that aren’t related to work, such as a veterans’ club, community organization, or alumni association? How about his health: Does he eat well and stay active? How does he feel about living to a ripe old age? I would also ask if he has any friends who have flourished after retiring. If not, tell him about clients or friends of your own who have adopted a fulfilling new lifestyle after leaving their jobs.

This conversation will help you uncover whether your client is already coasting toward depression, and what resources he could realistically tap to transition into a less stressful life. Explore with him the possibility of part-time work. Ask him also if he has any desire to travel, to do something new and different, or to volunteer and make the world a better place.

Once you’ve discussed this in depth with him (ideally over lunch or in some other relaxed situation), show him again that he is financially well-off. If he still seems doubtful, ask what he would need to hear or see in order to be convinced that he doesn’t need to earn more money. I wager that he fears stopping work will take away his reason for living. He may believe that without a job to go to, he might as well die. Maybe he believes he will die.

If this anxiety underlies his reluctance to retire, talk to him about hard-working people you know who are now enjoying a long, fulfilling life in their Third Age. This will let the two of you segue into a discussion about how he can create a meaningful life outside of work, so his worst fears don’t come to pass.

Q: A gay couple I work with are now retired and feeling the strain of a recession-pinched portfolio. They have a business idea they would like to develop, but are concerned that the stress of being business partners will damage their longtime personal relationship—they are already quarreling a lot about money worries. Is there a way they can assess the risk before committing to this venture?
If this couple’s relationship is already tense, I would tactfully recommend good couples counseling or therapy, which can help them move from their “stress mode” of relating to one another (which tends to be dysfunctional) to their more rational, adult positive mode. You might ask them to brainstorm low-cost ways to reconnect.

As for becoming business partners, why don’t they just try it? On two conditions, though: First, that they make their “tryout” an actual trial run of three to six months; and second, that they hire a business coach who can help them work with any partnership issues to maximize their chance of success.

Some close couples—married or otherwise—are able to work well together, complementing and supporting each other. If your clients discover they’re well-paired professionally, they will still need to set limits so that work doesn’t swallow up their personal lives. That’s why I would suggest that you help them carefully explore their fears and fantasies, and advise them to seek professional assistance (couples therapy and a business coach) in preparation for a trial run.

As more and more boomers reach 62, 65, or whatever, they will confront the adjustments that result from trying to transform retirement into “renewment.” My hope is that this process will become less lonely as a result of more creative sharing of resources, ideas and solutions to old and new problems.

You can help your clients make the transition more smoothly if you take time to listen, to explore options, to brainstorm solutions, to share success stories of others who have gone before and to suggest resources that can assist with problems or areas of weakness. Most important of all, try to help your clients envision a positive future grounded in financial reality, so their “not working” (or working less) phase can truly become a Third Age of renewal.


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