Retirement from the Fire Service: Five Needs for Success
Retiring from the fire service initiates several large-scale changes in a firefighter’s life. Retirees’ schedules, relationships, identity, finances, and health all take new shape. On top of all these changes, retirement-related emotional wellness issues begin to surface, and retirees wrestle with traumatic memories, anxiety, insomnia, depression, marital tension, and even cancer diagnoses. So, retirees find themselves juggling some major needs.
Retired firefighters experience the need for belonging and support, reconnection with family, a new sense of purpose, financial organization, and successful aging. If these needs are met in healthy ways, they can help usher in a season of life that is rewarding and satisfying; if they are not adequately met, they can drive retirees toward substance abuse, isolation, aimlessness, or even suicidal ideation.
Let’s take a look at the five major needs retired firefighters have and how retirees can meet them in emotionally well ways that enable them to enjoy their best phase of life yet.
The foundation of understanding retirees’ needs is understanding the personality shift that takes place around the ages of 50 to 60. During this phase, psychologists have found that individuals tend to start using opposing traits from their typical Myers-Briggs personality profiles. “Thinkers” may begin using some of the emotional processing that is characteristic of “feelers.” But, since most firefighters are generally “thinkers” who are skeptical of emotion, this change can catch them off guard.
Retirees find themselves with more time on their hands than they had when they were working, and this emotional processing can become overwhelming for some. They may feel positive emotions—excitement, freedom, and accomplishment—with regard to retirement. Or, they may feel the negative emotions of ambivalence and sadness regarding the loss of professional identity, the loss of the brotherhood, anxiety, or pessimism.
Their strongest emotions may arise in response to memories. Again, the empty schedule of retirees opens them up to the vulnerability of time, and quietness beckons them to remember. Many may have experienced covert depression for years that they were able to medicate with a busy schedule. Now, with an open schedule, this depression may become inescapable. Their worst memories and experiences may begin to surface, causing insomnia, anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
NEED #1: BELONGING AND SUPPORT
Retired firefighters need belonging. For years, firefighters have been surrounded by their fellow firefighters, but in retirement they immediately and almost unnaturally find themselves alone. Firefighter/Paramedic Brian DiNicola of the Batavia (IL) Fire Department pointed out that firefighters have to grieve the changes that retirement brings; two of the greatest are the loss of their professional identity and the loss of the brotherhood.
The leap from years of constant interaction with fellow firefighters into the uncomfortable quietness of home life raises the need for belonging. The rising awareness of emotion and pain related to traumatic memories raises the need for support. The safest place for a retired firefighter to turn for emotional support is a peer. Peers know what they have been through. They have probably experienced something similar.
This is the reason Illinois Firefighter Peer Support (ILFFPS) has created a Retiree Peer Support Program. The Batavia Fire Department helped us get this program off the ground. It gives retired firefighters the belonging and support they need from fellow retired firefighters so they can open up and talk about the transitions, emotions, and pain they are experiencing.
Painful memories. The firefighter’s job changes that individual’s entire life. It calls him to serve, choose courage, and save people’s lives and can be incredibly rewarding. But it can also leave lasting memories and scars. First responders are often there for peoples’ worst days. They see life and death on display nearly every day on the job. When they retire, the quietness of their new schedule allows these memories to surface. Some refer to this season of remembering as “dancing with ghosts.” These memories can precipitate some common emotional wellness issues, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. Without support, substances and suicide may become the retiree’s only escapes.
Cancer diagnoses. Sadly, cancer hits more often than not in the fire service. According to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), those in the fire service are two times more likely than nonfirefighters to be diagnosed with brain cancer and liver cancer, 2.8 times more likely to be diagnosed with colon and rectal cancer, and 2.5 to three times more likely to be diagnosed with bladder cancer. They also have a higher incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and urinary cancer than nonfirefighters.
Diagnosed individuals can move forward by managing fatigue, adjusting to physical changes, sorting through the financial issues, and addressing changes and relationship dynamics associated with a cancer diagnosis. But, they need not feel alone. By increasing communication with family members and peer supporters, cancer patients can cope with processing the physical pain, thinking about the end of life, and bereavement. Again, being surrounded by support changes everything for retired firefighters, regardless of their emotional or physical situation.
Substance abuse. When an individual goes through a season of big transition, the most important need he has is support. Without adequate support, he will turn to escapes such as substances. A staggering number of retirees find themselves turning to alcohol or other drugs to medicate the pain they feel, but their bodies metabolize alcohol differently than they did when they were younger. One beer hits the body the way two or three would have hit it in the past, so it becomes easy to overdo it.
Painful memories and trauma recede into the background when an individual is under the influence; but, however, once the body filters the substance, painful memories emerge yet again. Continued exposure to addictive substances teaches neurotransmitters in the brain to adapt, and addiction sets in. Individuals can no longer function normally without the excitatory or inhibitory response that the substance inspires, so they become dependent. Unfortunately, breaking this addiction requires withdrawal, and individuals often experience depression simultaneously. Freedom can be achieved with commitment and support.
Instead of falling into addiction, retirees can find healing through support. Talking to a peer about memories and pain can bring a new perspective and hope that go beyond what any temporary substance-induced escape could provide. What a difference support makes!
Suicidal thinking. If the retiree’s family is having financial issues or the retiree suffers from an illness or chronic pain, he may begin to feel he is a burden. According to psychologist and suicide expert Dr. Thomas Joiner of Florida State University, one of the strongest factors contributing to an individual’s desire to end his life is his sense of being a burden. Making it worse, most firefighters experience a loss of belonging from not being around fellow firefighters regularly. Some even go through divorce at the turn of retirement. These losses of belonging can drive them to consider suicide.
Joiner proposed the theory in a presentation at a 2013 conference, “Why People Die by Suicide.” For an individual to commit suicide, that person needs both the desire and the ability to commit suicide. This desire develops under the specific psychological situation in which an individual feels both the perception that he is burdensome and a low sense of belonging with others. This social alienation and feeling of burdensome then drive the individual to undertake high-risk behaviors that expose the individual to pain and numb his sense of self-preservation.
Again, the options for retired firefighters experiencing emotional pain or a cancer diagnosis are typically to escape or to connect. If they choose escape, they may find themselves seeking substances or suicide. But if they choose to connect, their fellow firefighters, friends, and family can help them move forward into a truly rewarding season of life.
NEED #2: RECONNECTION WITH FAMILY
In the firefighter’s transition from full-time work to retirement, two major relationships change in his life—the fellow firefighter relationship and the spousal relationship. The fellow firefighter relationship changes, creating a need for belonging. The spousal relationship changes, creating a need for reconnection.
Sadly, the sense of disconnection and the shifting dynamics that come with retirement can drive couples toward divorce. In the past two decades, the divorce rate for adults ages 50 and older doubled, while the divorce rate for every other age group dropped. In the 1990s, only 10 percent of couples who divorced were over the age of 50. By 2010, 25 percent of couples getting divorced were over the age of 50. Today, men ages 65 and older are more likely to be divorced than widowed, according to statistics featured in the Time article “How to Stay Married.”
During working years, couples fill their schedules with meetings, kids’ sports practices, social outings, and corporate functions, finding satisfaction in work, achievement, and social connection. At the turn of retirement, however, couples find themselves staring across the breakfast table wondering what to do with this person they married. After all these years of looking forward to “kicking back, relaxing, and traveling,” they begin to realize that they could get a little bored and that they don’t know their mate as well as they thought.
Now that the retiree is home, the time couples spend together changes. Figuring out a balance of time spent together and apart helps couples not become overwhelmed with one another and this new phase. If the retiree is at home and the spouse is still working, role reversal can take some adjusting as well. Who will do the housework? Who will pay the bills? Are both individuals okay with the new plan? Couples often have to discover how to communicate their wants and needs as they work to reconnect.
Retired firefighters, then, have a choice. Will they meet their need for reconnection with family, or will they close themselves off, assuming their spouse “just doesn’t get it” and see their marriages deteriorate? Studies have shown that those who commit to sticking it out often discover a renewed sense of closeness like that they had in their courtship.
A Cornell University study conducted by gerontologist Karl Pillemer looked at 700 elderly adults and found that 100 percent of them called their long marriage “the best thing in their life.” It also found that 100 percent of them stated that marriage was either “hard” or “very, very hard.” If they are willing to practice being good to one another, they begin to rediscover mutual interests and intimacy that make their marriages come to life again!
Soul mates are made, not found. Retired couples often have to discover or develop mutual interests. If they are willing to think of activities they enjoy doing together and commit to doing them often, they will connect and befriend one another. Retired couples often have to be intentional to keep up their sex lives. A study of couples married 30 or more years discovered that most couples had sex once a week on average. Comparing this to couples who had sex once a month or less, those who were intimate more frequently were happier and more likely to stay together.
But, the pressure is not all on the couple. The initiative lies with the retiree. He must find something meaningful to do with his own personal time, whether it’s mentoring someone younger, volunteering at a favorite organization, taking up consulting, gardening, or traveling. Filling his days with satisfying activity and inviting his spouse to join in if she wishes will make him more fulfilled and ready to give more to his marriage.
Retired firefighters may need to put themselves out there and become vulnerable with their spouses to reconnect. Giving up on the marriage will not make his life better. The real issue is that the retiree needs to find ways to reconnect. This transition can be difficult, but hanging on to a marriage can become the most rewarding, beautiful part of his retirement.
NEED #3: A NEW SENSE OF PURPOSE
As firefighters come to the end of their active time in the fire service, many begin asking, “What am I going to spend my time doing now?” Although their pensions or savings may afford them the freedom to relax, moving from the track of productivity and purpose to the track of relaxation and play will not satisfy for long.
Mitch Anthony, author of The New Retirementality, points out that many people spend their careers looking forward to getting out of “the race” only to discover that they are bored with not being in “the race.” They feel purposeless and irrelevant. Anthony advocates, “Retirement is an unnatural condition! Even if you can afford to retire, the worst thing you can do is withdraw completely from the track of relevance!”
In our day and age, workers are expected to hit the age of 62, maybe 65, and dive headfirst into a nonemployed life of golf, travel, grandchildren, and newspaper crossword puzzles. What if retirees stopped viewing retirement as the end of work and started viewing retirement as the beginning of the meaningful years? These years may include a new type of work that means as much as firefighting did.
Retirement has the potential of becoming the most rewarding, meaningful time of life, and firefighters, who have spent years serving others, now have the opportunity to pursue other dreams, if they have them. The right work for this season of life can be truly meaningful for a retiree, and being willing to bounce around to find the right fit helps. In finding this new purpose, retirees should explore different types of jobs (part–time vs. full-time, volunteer vs. paid), the type of boss they want to work for, or whether they want to start their own business.
Retirees choose to work for a variety of reasons, including wanting to stay active and involved, enjoying working, wanting money to buy extras, a job opportunity that presented itself, a decrease in the value of savings or investments, needing money to make ends meet, keeping health insurance or other benefits, or trying a different career. Whatever the motivation, continuing to have a meaningful occupation is good for them.
In fact, the benefits of work include the following:
- Physical health/energy,
- Intellectual stimulation,
- Social stimulation,
- Creative tasks,
- Meaningful contribution,
- Sense of relevance,
- Solving problems,
- Engagement/doing what you love, and
- Opportunity for growth.
Choosing to work is not just a matter of boredom and interest; it is a physiological matter of the brain. Anthony states, “We must treat the brain like the highly sophisticated muscle it is and not allow atrophy to set in because of a lifestyle that taxes it too little. Deficient intellectual challenge equals slowed synapse development and opens the door to degenerative conditions.”
That being said, retirement should not be all about occupation. It should be about family, fun, adventure, projects, occupation, and memory building. The bottom line is balance. Anthony encourages retirees to “balance vocation and vacation instead of bingeing on work then bingeing on leisure.” Both occupation and relaxation should define retirement.
However retired firefighters decide to spend their time, it should meet the need for a new sense of purpose. By planning for the future, analyzing their interests, and making a shared vision for life with their spouses, retirees can begin to pinpoint purposeful work that truly excites them for this new phase.
NEED #4: FINANCIAL ORGANIZATION
When firefighters retire, income is one of the losses they grieve. Retirement can last for 30 years at the upper end, and that leaves retirees with a need for funds to provide for medical expenses, living expenses, and hobbies or adventures. Having a healthy retirement means laying a sustainable financial foundation. By defining retirement goals, considering the financial benefits associated with retiring from the fire service, and analyzing personal savings and investments, a retiree can determine the level of risk he can tolerate and what future plans will look like.
A financially sustainable retirement should start with making a retirement budget and taking it for a test drive to see how it fits the family’s needs. Paying off debt and setting aside an emergency fund will bring peace of mind. Simplifying financial commitments will relieve pressures on the budget. Then, the retiree can assess what other streams of income will provide for the family—pension, fixed annuities, spouse’s social security, and other personal investments. These streams of income should aim to cover fixed expenses and provide additional budget space to pursue personal interests.
If moving out of state is a possibility, the individual should consider tax laws in prospective states. In Illinois, pension and retirement income is not taxed. Elsewhere, it may be. If the spouse will be taking social security, the individual should consider delaying taking the benefits as long as possible so that the social security payments increase. Beginning social security at age 62 will reduce benefits; delaying taking social security until after age 66 or 67 will increase payments by eight percent annually. If retirement starts early for an individual, he should consider seeking employment or even starting a business where he can continue investing for future retired years.
Retirees should feel the need to be financially organized and, considering all the options, should decide whether they want to work. Thinking through these financial considerations will help retirees to enjoy their retired time without stress.
NEED #5: SUCCESSFUL AGING
The fifth need retired firefighters have is for successful aging. According to Anthony, successful aging means living with vitality, continuing to challenge oneself mentally and physically, continuing to move forward, trying new things, and treating oneself as if he has many more years to live.
“The 5 Cs of Successful Aging” according to Anthony’s book The New Retirementality are as follows:
- Curiosity. Learning new things and growing your awareness.
- Challenge. Keeping your mind sharp by trying something new.
- Connectivity. Living and working in close proximity to friends and family.
- Creativity. Finding ways to solve problems, make something new, or fix things.
- Charity. Giving yourself or your resources to help others.
One of the ways retirees can begin to envision a successful aging into their future is to picture someone who has aged well. Anthony refers to these individuals as “retirementors.” They set the example for how to approach this new, final season of life. They go and do something with their retirement. They use their time and energy for their good and the good of others.
Retired firefighters should use their newfound time to learn about new things and become students of their interests. With this, they should challenge themselves to try new things. This opens the door for them to find what interests them: travel, writing, teaching, mentoring, relaxing, going back to school, learning a new skill, developing a new hobby, finishing unfinished projects, consulting, starting a new business, getting a part-time job, volunteering, or getting involved in the community.
For many, the highest value in retirement is giving back. Psychologist and researcher Eric Erickson identified the primary goal of adults in their mid-life as “generativity.” Erickson believes, “All we want to do is create something that outlives us.” So, those in their midlife find meaning in passing on a legacy. David Levinson states, “I truly believe that everyone has some way that they can help somebody else …. They just need to know where they are wanted and needed, and sometimes they just need to be pointed in the right direction.”
After years of work and accumulating experience, retirees are ready to pass on information, coaching, and support to the younger generations. Giving back to younger generations provides new purpose, self-identity, and fulfillment. Retired firefighters truly have so much to offer to younger firefighters, and it really is a win-win situation for both: Retirees feel purpose; active firefighters feel empowered and equipped.
Despite the firehouse jokes that identify someone at the end of his career as one of the “old guys,” retired firefighters actually have big, bold futures ahead of them. If their need for successful aging is met, they will continue to live, learn, challenge themselves, connect with others, and give back.
These five needs—belonging and support, reconnection with family, a new sense of purpose, financial organization, and successful aging—define the questions, desires, and vision retired firefighters have for their futures. If these needs go unmet, retirees will struggle alone and burdened, likely turning toward substances or suicide to escape. But if retirees can meet their needs in healthy ways by opening up to others, reinvesting in their marriages, finding a meaningful occupation, getting financially organized, and giving back, they will discover that retirement may just be their favorite season yet.
Jada B. Hudson
Fire Engineering 12/2017