Planning ahead, rather than leaving it to chance, can make for a more rewarding retirement.
Most people are unprepared when it comes time to retire and end up stumbling through a series of awkward -- and usually unnecessary -- life transitions.
"A little planning and some good, solid communication can make a big difference, make life better and get you where you want to be a lot more smoothly," said Phyllis Moen, a sociologist and retirement researcher at the University of Minnesota.
Instead, new retirees often heave a sigh of relief after leaving work behind -- the honeymoon phase of retirement -- and within a year run smack in to the result of no -- or naive -- planning.
"Some people find out their finances aren't enough, or they're bored, or there must be more to life than golf," said transition and life coach Kate Schaefers of Shoreview. "But underlying it all is their changed relationships -- with a spouse, with friends from work, even with themselves as they sort through a self-identity no longer tied to what they do for a living."
Retirees rarely spend much time figuring out how to spend newfound leisure time or thinking about how their lives will change, Moen said.
More often, they just expect things to work out, often taking up activities that fill their days but don't offer the same meaning or satisfaction that their jobs did.
That's what initially happened to Jim Rasmusson of Golden Valley. The computer technology manager planned to retire from his job when he turned 67 in 2011. That changed abruptly in March 2009, when he got a pink slip.
After counseling with Schaefers, he decided to plunge into intense volunteer work on the governing board at his church. It wasn't until after his unemployment benefits expired that he formally retired. His wife, LaVonne, 66, retired as an architectural draftsman 10 years ago.
Despite the fact that the Rasmussons haven't had a lengthy conversation about how their relationship is changing, they're doing well, they say.
"I'm the planner and Jim is the doer," said LaVonne. "We're so different that we get along pretty well -- except that Jim's a real packrat and I definitely am not."
"And I like lunch," Jim noted, "but LaVonne hasn't fixed lunch since the kids were home. I'm trainable. I'm learning to fend for myself."
And while they haven't mapped out their future, they do have some ideas about where they're headed.
"We have kind of a plan -- fix up the house and sell it in four or five years, and downsize to something much smaller," LaVonne said. "Then we may be able to afford to live part of the winter farther south, maybe near one of our three kids."
Even that amount of planning is unusual among new retirees, Moen said.
"Retirement today is not going to be like it was for our parents," said Moen, who's 68 and not planning to retire anytime soon. "There are many possibilities for how we use our time and other resources, and we may live for 30 or 40 years in retirement, far longer than ever before.
"The key to making the transitions is to talk, talk talk," Moen said. "The alternative is to drift and probably have a less rewarding retirement than you might have had."
Here are four other transitions that retirees will face:
Financial: For most people, Social Security will be a significant source of income. Before retiring, figure out how much you'll need -- or whether you must delay retirement, add part-time paid work or ratchet back living costs to make it work.
Health insurance: Unless you're wealthy, Medicare will likely become your primary health insurer, with supplements from a private plan that fills some of the gaps. That means your health costs probably will go up. You can investigate your options at www.medicare.com or the Minnesota Board on Aging's "Health Care Choices 2011" at www.mnaging.org.
Where to live: Will you be hitting the road in your RV, or moving to Scottsdale or buying a condo in Hopkins? Often moves are sparked by an effort to downsize and simplify life, or when house upkeep becomes too physically taxing.
The last transition: If you live long enough, you will develop some disabilities. Those who plan ahead can soften the effects and ease the pressure on families. Consider whether to buy long-term care insurance that might help you stay at home, in assisted living or in a nursing home if you need daily help with health care. Long before you retire, fill out a health care directive and get your legal affairs in order, including a will.
"Generally, people just don't think much about these things before they retire," Moen said. "They retire and hope for the best. Planning for the best makes it much more likely you'll get there."
Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253