Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services

Aging Matters 

Now What? The Lived Experience of Women Forced to Retire and Implications to Health in Later Life

Francine Hebert Sheppard, PhD, RN, CNE; Amber Welborn, MSN, RN

Abstract

Women in the United States are retiring at an unprecedented rate, with many retirements driven by recent economic downturns and social expectations, such as caregiving. Successful retirement transition is a key component of happiness during older adulthood, but many factors suggest that forced retirement may have a negative impact on health. The purpose of the current research study was to explore the lived experiences of women who were forced to retire. The current study population comprised 10 women, age ≥55, recruited from community settings to participate in individual semi-structured interviews. Participants shared common experiences, despite having different reasons for retiring. The overarching theme of Now What? Denied the Opportunity to Mentally Prepare was identified. Findings suggest opportunities for nurses to assess women for mental and physical health indicators and assist them as they transition into retirement, particularly if the retirement was unplanned. [Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 57(10), 12–16.]

Abstract

Women in the United States are retiring at an unprecedented rate, with many retirements driven by recent economic downturns and social expectations, such as caregiving. Successful retirement transition is a key component of happiness during older adulthood, but many factors suggest that forced retirement may have a negative impact on health. The purpose of the current research study was to explore the lived experiences of women who were forced to retire. The current study population comprised 10 women, age ≥55, recruited from community settings to participate in individual semi-structured interviews. Participants shared common experiences, despite having different reasons for retiring. The overarching theme of Now What? Denied the Opportunity to Mentally Prepare was identified. Findings suggest opportunities for nurses to assess women for mental and physical health indicators and assist them as they transition into retirement, particularly if the retirement was unplanned. [Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 57(10), 12–16.]

Addressing issues related to geropsychiatry and the well-being of older adults

Successful retirement transition has been found to be a key component of happiness (Forster & Morris, 2012) and wellness (Bauger & Bongaardt, 2016) in older adulthood, and may be linked to better health outcomes. Women, who represent approximately one half of the U.S. workforce, have started to retire in large numbers, but those who are forced to retire may be disadvantaged without the benefit of planning for or anticipating retirement. Women earn overall lower wages, have fewer work benefits, and experience higher discontinuity of employment compared to men, due to childbirth and family caregiving responsibilities (United States Census Bureau, 2014). The combination of factors defines this group of retiring women as a vulnerable population prone to many health care needs.

The term forced to retire describes an unexpected, unplanned, and unanticipated retirement experience as perceived by the retiree. Current literature on forced retirement is limited. Qualitative research studies have focused on overall retirement experiences in men and women (Bauger & Bongaardt, 2016) and women-specific retirement discussions (Price & Nesteruk, 2015; Sheppard & Wallace, 2018), but to date there has not been a phenomenological study in the literature exploring the transitional experiences of U.S. women who were forced to retire. Existing literature supports that lost autonomy related to the retirement decision has negative consequences for health (van Solinge & Henkens, 2007) and mental health outcomes are worse among women who have experienced forced retirement versus voluntary retirement (Sheppard & Wallace, 2018). The purpose of the current research study was to explore the lived experiences of women who were forced to retire.

Conceptual Model

The Transactional Stress and Coping Model (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) was used as a conceptual framework for the current study. Within this framework, stress is viewed as an existing relationship between person and environment. The environment can be harmful to a person's health, requiring coping to maintain health. Coping requires ongoing flexibility to adapt one's thinking processes and behaviors to the changing environment. Coping is individualized to the perception of the situation in the environment and timing of the situation. Selection of the conceptual framework was based on previous data with the framework's central concepts, conceptual relationships, and assumptions. Central assumptions to the theory are that cognition and emotions continuously change, emotions result from the person–environment transaction, and contextual factors influence the meaning of the transaction. Harmful environmental stressors may impact the experiences of forced women retirees, requiring reactive coping to retain or regain positive outcomes, including health and wellness.

Method

Approval to conduct the current study was obtained from the university institutional review board. A phenomenological approach was used to describe the lived experiences of women forced to retire. Forced to retire was defined as retirement that occurred outside of the planned timeframe or circumstance for any reason, including poor health, caregiver duties, being laid off or fired, or another reason. Snowball purposive sampling was used to recruit participants from community organizations, including churches, senior service centers, and senior communities. Eligibility criteria included being female, age ≥55, able to read and speak English, and forced to retire from working outside of the home or within a home-based business. Exclusion criteria included living in an institution, such as a nursing home. Recruitment continued until data saturation was achieved and no new information was revealed.

Data Collection

Semi-structured interviews were individually conducted in a private area using question prompts to explore participants' experiences and potential facilitators of barriers to successful and healthy retirement. Confidentiality was maintained using pseudonyms on all forms and a secure cloud storage of data. Field notes were recorded and used as supplemental data. Using an iterative process, each interview was used to inform the next interview (Sandelowski, 2002). Ten women were interviewed over a 2-month period, with each interview lasting approximately 1 hour.

Trustworthiness and Credibility

Several strategies to ensure internal validity (Creswell & Creswell, 2018) were used during the current study. Throughout data collection, the researchers (F.H.S., A.W.) sought detailed descriptions of the women's experiences, carefully considering participant experiences that contradicted the most commonly described experiences. Triangulation was conducted with a previous study's exploratory data, collected interview data, field notes, and observations.

Data Analysis

Interview recordings were transcribed verbatim. Primary interview data and field notes were analyzed concurrently with data collection. Two investigators (F.H.S., A.W.) analyzed the data separately and discussed individual findings. Interview texts were read multiple times by each author to immerse themselves in the data. Inductive hierarchal content analysis was used to apply codes to the raw data (Creswell & Creswell, 2018). First level coding was achieved by looking at large pieces or chunks of participant verbatim text and assigning initial code(s) (Sandelowski, 1995). New codes were created as needed to fit the content of all the text. During peer debriefing, codes were reanalyzed and discussed collaboratively to ensure consistent coding and verification of an accurate representation of the data. Data saturation was confirmed after 10 interviews. A final list of codes and an overarching theme supported by exemplar quotes was produced.

Results

Participant mean age was 68.4 (SD = 4.9 years) with a mean age at retirement of 56.8 (SD = 6 years). Most participants were either currently married or had been married at some point in their lives (70%). Participants reported previous work in the areas of hospitality, finance, health care, education, and information technology. Reasons for retirement included health (n = 3), being fired (n = 3), being laid off (n = 2), spousal pressure (n = 1), and caregiving (n = 1). Most participants were African American (70%) and had attended some college (60%) (Table 1).

Sample Demographics (N = 10)

Table 1:

Sample Demographics (N = 10)

The resultant codes and overarching theme were congruent with the conceptual model. Applying the thematic results back to the model, the data support a process experience for women who were forced to retire. The model's processes that regulate the person–environment relationship (stress) for women who experienced forced retirement included a cognitive appraisal of the situation and management of outcomes through coping.

Overarching Theme

A central theme emerged during analysis, Now What? Denied the Opportunity to Mentally Prepare. This theme aligns with the conceptual phase of appraisal and captures the process of reconsidering one's life after the event of an unplanned retirement. The sudden retiree may unexpectedly find herself with fewer financial resources, fewer social connections, and more time alone or with her partner. Everything that was once her predictable routine and established life must be suddenly reevaluated. This reevaluation of self may involve redefining one's self-worth. Figure 1 reflects participants' responses related to the theme in terms of appraisal, coping, and outcomes.

Schematic of the study's overarching theme, Now What? Denied the Opportunity to Mentally Prepare.

Figure 1.

Schematic of the study's overarching theme, Now What? Denied the Opportunity to Mentally Prepare.

Cognitive Appraisal of the Situation. After the event of forced retirement occurs, the new retiree moves into a mode of appraisal, where she assesses the situation and her circumstances. She considers the surprise, sometimes shock, of her new circumstance and begins to lean into the transition toward the new unplanned retirement. Some women in the current study verbalized that, although they had planned to retire someday, retiring at a specific point in time and under involuntary circumstances dispelled previously held expectations. Participants who appraised the newfound circumstance of retirement in a positive light may have adjusted more readily and with greater ease than women who appraised the situation in a negative light. Some participants attributed their situational assessments to personal attitudes and beliefs, social support, faith in a higher power, or some other internal sense of resourcefulness.

Management of Outcomes Through Coping. Emotional evaluation as coping is a means of reducing negative emotional responses related to stress, such as fear, depression, anxiety, and frustration. When the source of stress is deemed out of the individual's control, the evaluative coping mechanism assumes control. Problem-focused coping deals with the source of stress in a logical and problem-solving manner, seeking to remove or diminish the source of the stress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). This coping may include reevaluating one's resources, including time, finances, and supportive networks. Many participants reported that the inability to adequately prepare for retirement made finding and managing existing resources more difficult. For women who were comfortable with reaching out to others to inquire about resources or who had relatives or friends to assist them, resources were more easily obtained, and the retirement transition was more positive. Those without assistance or who felt disempowered or lost had more negative transitions. A desire to continue making valuable contributions was expressed by all participants. Analysis of data suggested that healthy emotional coping mechanisms for this population include connecting through faith in a higher power and/or social interaction and remaining significant by having a clear purpose for which to devote one's time and efforts.

Outcomes ran across a continuum for participants. Some participants verbalized that their health had declined after their retirement, describing lack of physical activity, and even major illnesses such as heart disease and chronic gastrointestinal disturbances. On the contrary, some participants verbalized a decrease in their chronic stress levels. Social support outcomes ranged from isolation to intentional connection with other older adults. Health outcomes and related social and financial outcomes were influenced by many factors, including existing social support, knowledge of and attitudes toward health, financial resources, and previous experience with and resilience to challenging situations.

Discussion

The overarching theme of Now What? Denied the Opportunity to Mentally Prepare, reflects the initial shock that all participants expressed, feelings of being lost and isolated, and how dealing with that shock may have impacted outcomes. The reality of finding one's self instantly without employment and with little hope of returning to work due to age and perceptions of work-place ageism, was averse to participant stability and self-esteem. Participants' transition during the appraisal phase primarily consisted of adjusting to the abrupt new circumstances. Although voluntarily reducing one's working time is frequently the beginning path to full retirement (Djukanovic & Peterson, 2016), women in the current study had minimal time to change their mental outlook and plans before retirement. This unnatural departure from the working environment left some participants with a sense of profound loss.

There are some proposed changes that may help women remain in the workforce longer, compensating for lost Social Security worktime credit due to unpaid caregiving or other reasons. One suggestion focuses on continued worker skill development, with income paid by Social Security to eligible workers who choose to engage in job training or attend courses in higher education on a full-time basis (Whitman, Freedman, & Emerman, 2018). The reality or perception of ageism has ushered in the creation of age-friendly working environments. From the perspective of the employing organization, such workplace climates represent real advancement to address a globally aging workforce (Eppler-Hattab, Meshoulam, & Doron, 2019; Oude Mulders & Henkens, 2019).

Although the authors did not purposefully seek to recruit any participants of a specified race, 70% of the women in the current study were African American. Although a sample size of 10 women does not support generalization to the larger population, the literature suggests that a larger proportion of non-White women are forced to retire, compared to White women (Sheppard & Wallace, 2018). Further research using randomized sampling techniques is needed to explore this disparity.

Women in the current study who were forced to retire shared common experiences, despite having different reasons for retiring. The women collectively described a situation of being denied the opportunity to mentally prepare for retirement. There is an opportunity for nurses, as prominent health care professionals, to address the problem by assessing older women for mental and physical health indicators to better assist them as they transition into retirement, particularly if retirement was unplanned. Older women with transitional obstacles often lack knowledge of available financial, social, therapeutic, and other health-driven resources and may not be able to ask for help during critical times of need. Guiding assistance from nurses and other health care professionals may help older women access available resources.

Limitations

Most of the women in the current study were African American. These women may have verbalized forced retirement experiences unique to them in the current study. Participants' experiences are unique to them and their perceptions of the event. All women were recruited from one southern U.S. state.

Conclusion

Among the large cohort of women retiring in the United States, the subset of women forced to retire with little to no time for mental preparation is especially vulnerable. Cognitive or logic-driven coping through navigating resources can be a healthy way to discover available social, financial, and other channels to assist women with healthier retirements. Embracing one's newfound freedom as a means of expressing oneself and finding the silver lining in bad situations was mentally healthy for women forced to retire and resulted in more positive health, financial, and social outcomes.

References

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Sample Demographics (N = 10)

Characteristicn (%)
Mean (SD) age (years)68.4 (4.86)
Race/ethnicity
  African American7 (70)
  Caucasian3 (30)
Marital status
  Divorced4 (40)
  Single3 (56)
  Widowed2 (20)
  Married1 (44)
Level of education
  GED/high school diploma3 (30)
  Attended some college6 (60)
  Four years of college of more1 (10)
Authors

Dr. Sheppard is Assistant Professor, Director of Undergraduate Programs, and Certified Nursing Educator, Western Carolina University, School of Nursing, Asheville, North Carolina; and Ms. Welborn is Nurse Educator, and PhD Student, University of North Carolina Greensboro, School of Nursing, Greensboro, North Carolina.

The authors have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

The authors thank the School of Nursing at the University of North Carolina Greensboro for funding this research project through the SON Internal Small Grants Award. The authors also thank the women who so bravely and generously shared their stories.

Address correspondence to Francine Hebert Sheppard, PhD, RN, CNE, Assistant Professor, Director of Undergraduate Programs, Certified Nursing Educator, Western Carolina University, 28 Schenck Parkway, #314, Asheville, NC 28803; e-mail: fsheppard@wcu.edu.

Received: March 13, 2019
Accepted: May 23, 2019
Posted Online: August 23, 2019

10.3928/02793695-20190821-01

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