Stimulated by an article by Sally Sugg and a colleague in the September 2011 issue of Therapy Today,1 we decided that we would like to go into more depth about certain aspects of the retirement process, especially as one of us is now facing some of these dilemmas herself.
We were particularly interested in how existential ideas relating to meaning, death, freedom and isolation affected people’s decisions to retire and also how these issues came up in practitioners’ lives post-retirement. We also wondered how practitioners experienced this last transition,2 whether they saw it as clear cut, and whether they believed they had received sufficient support and encouragement both from other practitioners and from their professional organisations.
We interviewed eight counsellors/psychotherapists aged between 60 and 92, who had either already retired or who had severely cut down their workload. We followed BACP guidelines on confidentiality, giving the participants the right to be anonymous3 (some chose to do this and others did not) and to erase any personal material before the article appeared in print.
The professions of counselling and psychotherapy have increased exponentially over the last 30 years; BACP membership currently nears some 40,000. At the same time an increasing number of us (over 6,000 in BACP alone) are practising beyond the age of 60 and face some of the dilemmas that confront people in other professions about when, if and how to retire.
This is a period of transition and, because the nature of our profession allows practitioners to continue to work long beyond the current normal retirement age (some even into their 80s and 90s), the change can take place more gently and gradually. Several of the practitioners we spoke to had continued with private practice after working for an organisation in either a counselling or other role. Some also continued to contribute to the profession in various ways after they had ended private client work.
The possibility of continuing work, particularly part-time work, also gives rise to many questions: not least the fitness to practise of such practitioners. We are at the early stages of understanding the many social, cultural and political implications of living and working longer, particularly when work opportunities for both counsellors and their clients are rapidly decreasing.
The responses from interviewees were moving, surprising and very varied. Tensions and polarities between conflicting values were often evident. We can draw no general conclusions but useful themes emerged.
There was a particular focus on the influence of existential philosophical concepts, such as meaning/meaningless, freedom, isolation and death. There was often a tension between freedom and commitment, between the wish to work and the wish to be available to support friends and family. The subject of death was either embraced or avoided as too painful.
Julia (68, formerly a person-centred practitioner, and trainer, retired at 60) had felt a strong need for freedom and thought that the imminent approach of death had helped her focus on what she would do for the rest of her life. Her approach concurred with Heidegger’s4 view that the only way to live authentically and fully is by understanding every moment as an irreversible step taking us closer to our death. Annette (82, retired at 80) continued to use her counselling skills to support friends and relatives and could now give more practical support. Theresa (64, formerly a counsellor in the NHS) spoke of becoming aware of the fragility of her life after an illness and of being influenced by the resignation of disenchanted others to resign from the health service herself. Eve (70, retired at 65) decided that, at this stage of her life, the choice to have more freedom and flexibility was appropriate. Pauline (92, retired at 90 and a well-known pioneer, supervisor, trainer and writer) wanted ‘more time to be rather than be constrained by a timetable – time to explore what I wanted to do before I died’.
Loss and leaving work
Interviewees discussed the loss of the contribution work had made to their lives, and also what they had gained, particularly in their own personal development.
Although in general interviewees were ready to withdraw from the professional therapeutic relationship, several reflected ruefully on the loss of that specific and elusive yet inimitable quality of relationship that pertains to therapeutic work. This quality may be what many of us long for because of its absence in our childhood5 or in other areas of our lives, or its significance may be linked to an unattainable quest. Nadia (82, an analytic therapist, supervisor and lecturer, retired at 80 after a long preparation period) thought it was, perhaps, ‘a wish to expiate our guilt at not being able to heal our parents’. She had been ‘helping others’ since the age of 12, possibly, she thought, in a reaction to the coldness and repression of her own family culture.
Julia traced her chosen career back to her need for her life to have a purpose and to be there for other people and thence to the fact that she was born deaf and only recovered her hearing at the age of seven. From then on she loved to be with others and had always worked in institutions or groups with people. So the prospect of retirement brought with it fears of losing touch with the world and she mourned the loss of the in-depth therapeutic relationship. It was only since retirement and further therapy that she had been able to allow herself to access that grief at a deeper level.
Annette’s sense of independence and self-worth had been partially linked to work. Pauline missed the support group that had helped her make the decision to retire. However she had felt relief at stopping client work; she no longer felt the need for new challenges. Theresa missed being part of a team and was now concerned about the lack of structure in her day. She worried that, when winter comes, ‘living in woodland on a grey November day can be quite depressing’.
Alison (82, a former writer, who trained in her 50s, despite losing her husband during her training, and then practised, trained and supervised until the age of 80) felt she had less intimacy and less engagement with the world following retirement. She commented poignantly: ‘I no longer feel necessary in the world.’ However she was also enjoying the freedom of ‘just being’.
Nadia was relieved when retirement finally came, after many years of preparation. She wondered if her decision then to embark on a PhD was a way of fending off retirement and having to think about herself, perhaps linked to a lifelong pattern of ‘salvation through good works’. She missed the stimulus of being an academic tutor, but derived at least partial compensation from the contacts she was making through her research. Eve had noted the social assumptions attached to employment status: those who did not work were ‘of less value and possibly less interesting’, she felt.
The decision to retire
Interviewees reported a range of events, thoughts and feelings that led them to consider retirement. Some were aware of using concepts from their therapeutic models to inform their decision. Of those using a person-centred approach, Julia’s decision had been influenced by the concept of ‘felt sense’,6 which was connected to her need for a break and led eventually to her giving up all paid work. Alison too thought that this had helped her clarify her thoughts before her retirement decision. Similarly, psychoanalytic practitioners spoke of the clarification and support they gained from their model. Nadia felt able to trust her own unconscious. For her the idea of retirement emerged gradually, and the idea of doing a PhD also came this way, after 25 years of thinking ‘maybe I’ll write’. Eve referred to the psychoanalytic concepts of boundaries and commitment but also viewed her retirement through a Buddhist lens. Having had psychoanalysis, she felt ‘comfortable in myself and about my decision, especially reflected in the Buddhist idea of the natural cycle of life and death’. Practically, the demands of psychoanalytic therapy to be available to clients up to three times a week did not fit well with a wish for more freedom and other roles, including grandparent.
Life circumstances generally played an important part in the retirement decision. Eve described an ongoing internal process over a period of five years, the seeds of which were germinated by different factors in her life. Her retirement from the NHS came from a dislike of what was happening in the health service and her belief that ‘internal changes, such as increased record keeping, did not enhance or support an effective service for patient needs’. She was also influenced by her husband’s change of career and the birth of their first grandchild. Theresa began to feel that her own age and those of her clients were beginning to converge: ‘Working in a dementia service where patients were of similar age to myself and suffering the consequences of ill health, anxiety and aging was a component of my decision to retire, alongside the bureaucratic difficulties.’
Belle (64, retired at 60), who was born and brought up in France and whose family were French civil servants, thought her decision to retire was influenced by this culture where it was taken for granted that you retired at 60. She remembered her father telling her that she would probably only be able to do such demanding work for 10 years before she burned out.
Life after retirement
Several of the interviewees had reduced their hours of paid work with an organisation or individual client work but continued to contribute to the profession. Eve spent four years as a member of a committee that organised and ran advanced training for experienced psychotherapists. She said she would ideally like to continue to be involved in some kind of work with a social purpose where she could use her skills. Annette (a former actress, who trained late in life) found that she had not wholly taken on the identity of counsellor and that, once retired, her identity as an actress re-emerged more strongly. Pauline continued to offer supervision; she wanted ‘something to get up for’. She also works as an editor and facilitates some workshops. Nadia is in the final year of her doctorate.
None of the group spoke of finance as a primary consideration, although the changes did have some effects, both positive and negative. Annette was pleased to lose the financial obligations of professional body membership, insurance etc and that her counselling room would now be freed up for other purposes. Nadia had been able to move house after she had retired from private practice. Eve felt that, by retiring, she had given up her financial independence but she had been able to rent out the premises she previously used for psychotherapy, to provide some income.
For some interviewees, health considerations (not always their own) played an important part in their decision to retire, and in their life subsequently.
For example, Julia’s decision was influenced by the death of her mother who had been suffering from chronic illness for many years. Once she no longer had the responsibility of caring for her mother, she felt able to consider other ways of living and choices. Belle, on the other hand, had been treated for cancer seven years previously and had recovered and did not believe her decision to retire was influenced by this.
Pauline found that her health meant she was less able to manage the needs of clients, many of whom were coming to her with social anxiety: ‘I felt they needed more than counselling, eg finding a social life and I didn’t want to carry the weight of all this anxiety any more. I was 90, my health was deteriorating, I was in pain and it was all making me more tired.’ Theresa made the decision to retire when her mother’s health deteriorated, so that she could be completely available to her in the period before she died. Alison had had heart by-pass surgery four years previously and had thought through the implications of retirement, both for herself and for her clients, at that time. Nadia, although still relatively healthy, decided that, with old age approaching, ‘I cannot do that anymore’ and that she had to be realistic about her limitations.
Interviewees discussed professional concerns raised by their retirement decisions and the implications for present and future clients/supervisees. They also discussed how they had prepared clients for ending and the implications of this.
Julia had one long-term vulnerable client whom she saw weekly. She felt the client needed a year’s preparation, and allowed for this in her retirement plan. Annette had several long-term clients who were coming to the end of therapy. She had decided to retire as she was worried that her short-term memory was deteriorating. She sometimes struggled to find the appropriate word at the right time and felt this ability was essential in her work so took the decision to retire because she felt it was in the best interests of her clients and supervisees. Nadia, as a psychoanalytic practitioner, started planning her retirement four years in advance, and gave all her clients 18 months’ notice.
Interviewees were asked if they would have welcomed more support from family, friends, and groups or from their professional organisation before and after taking their retirement.
Several would have welcomed more support, and felt that their professional organisation showed little interest in supporting its members through this transition. Julia felt it would have been helpful to have joined a group where she could have talked through the personal, emotional and developmental aspects of retirement. Annette had taken a course called ‘One year to live: facing issues relevant to end of life’, which she had found useful.
Theresa phoned BACP for advice about maintaining her accreditation/payment of subscriptions and found their response confusing. She suggested that professional organisations could offer workshops for people to discuss their hopes, fears and feelings about retirement, and especially issues of competence and health. Nadia had not found it helpful to talk to friends and family about her decision; she felt they tended to have their own agenda. She would have liked a group or workshop to explore the issues of retirement. Nadia and Theresa said that their interview was the first time they had been able to talk about these issues in depth.
Clearly there is a need for further research and thinking in the areas touched on here. A bigger sample, and one that included men, would allow a broader discussion of the issues. At present this research does not, to the best of our knowledge, exist.
In response to our interviewees’ comments, we would like to make the following suggestions as to what BACP could do to support retiring members.
BACP could draw on the skills and experience of its retired members to contribute to its work in an advisory capacity. An information sheet addressing ethical issues and possibilities would be useful. Several practitioners mentioned a wish for a support group; BACP could encourage members to set these up, either locally or online.
Currently BACP does not have specialist provision for members whose retirement is related to age; for example, there is no listing of these members. Information about how an accredited member (of any age) who is no longer practising can maintain their accreditation would be helpful.
Finally, briefer forms of counselling, therapy and coaching may be an option for this age group, both to provide and receive, when the commitment to longer-term work no longer feels appropriate.
Carl Rogers, still a practitioner at the age of 78, reflected on how much he had enjoyed the previous 10 years. He had been able to ‘open myself to new ideas, new feelings, new risks,’ he wrote. ‘Increasingly I discover that being alive involves taking a chance, acting on less than certainty, engaging with life. All this brings change and for me the process of change is life. I realise that if I were stable and steady and static it would be living death.’5 We believe that BACP needs to think seriously about what it offers members at this important point of transition to help them ‘engage with life’ so their later years can be a time of renaissance rather than retirement.
All names have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities and all interviewees have given permission to be quoted. Additional interviews were conducted by Sally Sugg.
Mary Russell is an accredited counsellor working integratively in private practice and for an adult education college. Previously she was a student services manager in adult education. She is in her 60s and her interests include the changes that older members of society will continue to lead.
Val Simanowitz is a person-centred BACP accredited counsellor and supervisor, now semi-retired and practising part-time. She has previously worked with survivors of domestic violence, young asylum seekers and in a young people’s drop-in centre. She was course director of a BACP accredited diploma in counselling at Lewisham College for 10 years and co-authored Personality Development (Open University Press).
1. Sugg S, and anonymous. Retirement: when is it time to stop? Therapy Today. 2011; 22 (7): 16–19.
2. Golan N. Passing through transitions. London: Collier Macmillan; 1981.
3. BACP. Ethical framework for good practice in counselling and psychotherapy. Rugby: BACP; 2002.
4. Heidegger M. Being and time. London: SCM Press; 1962.
5. Rogers CR. A way of being. Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Co; 1980.
6. Gendlin E. Focusing-oriented psychotherapy: a manual of the experiential method. New York: Guilford Publications; 1996.