Retirement can be scary. Especially for men. Men of or near retirement age right now generally still come from an era when a man’s identity was tied up in his titles and the size of his paycheck.
And as these men get to retirement, the thought of what is to come begins to weigh on them — with no more job, there are no more titles. No more steady checks. No more positions of authority. In a society in which men define themselves by what they do for a living, the onset of retirement often brings a sense of lost identity. And with that, often, comes drinking.
Roberto Schiraldi, a professional counselor who runs his own office at 20 Nassau Street, is in an unusual position to see this issue from both sides. As a therapist, Schiraldi often counsels retirement-aged men and women through the stress and anxiety wrought by sudden life changes. But as a retiree, he has felt these very emotions.
Schiraldi will present “Men In Retirement: Challenges and Opportunities,” a free seminar sponsored by the Princeton Senior Resource Center, on Thursday, July 12, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. Visit princetonsenior.org.
Schiraldi earned his doctorate in holistic health, group processes, and counseling from Temple University and his master’s in education of urban disadvantaged youth from Springfield College in Massachusetts.
Though Schiraldi operates the private practice he has run since 1981, his bread-and-butter job for 25 years was as a staff counselor at major educational institutions. From 1987 until 2001 Schiraldi was a staff counselor at Temple University. Then he came to Princeton University in 2001 to do the same job until last year.
And though he has counseled numerous people through numerous transitions in their lives, Schiraldi still faced the universal emotions associated with retirement — fear, anxiety, and confusion. “A lot of my identity was centered on my career and on my title,” he says. “I had to ask myself, ‘Who am I without that?’”
The fear. With major life transitions, particularly something like retirement, the emotions go from wild enthusiasm to dread and fear in the course of about two weeks. It starts to dawn on people that Friday has come and gone, again, and no one has handed them a check. Then it starts to sink in that the lifestyle those checks funded cannot be maintained on what’s coming in from Social Security.
Some people have large, comfortable pensions and retirement plans, but Schiraldi says he is not one of them. “I stayed working for large institutions for the pseudo-security of the regular paycheck,” he says. By “pseudo-security” Schiraldi means that sense of security people have when they work for stable, large enterprises, though as continual rounds of layoffs and downsizings have shown, anyone is expendable at any time. But, he says, we feel secure as long as there is no reason to feel otherwise.
When employment ends, men in particular feel a huge sense of loss, not just for the dollars but what those dollars represent — status, Schiraldi says. “Without that steady check, you think ‘Now what? How worthy am I now?’”
Often, he says, men who don’t drink start, and men who do drink increase their intake as a way to cope. “But as we know, that just leads to another problem.”
Getting through it. “A friend said to me, ‘You know you’re entering the best third of your life,’” Schiraldi says. “I had never thought of it like that.”
What he was concentrating on was the black hole of his future. “But I knew that fear had to be looked at, because that fear was there for a reason,” he says. “I had to ask what I was really afraid of. It was all about me making some decisions and taking some actions to address that fear.”
Schiraldi says that getting through something like retirement comes down to small steps taken — staying busy, getting out and meeting people, taking on projects. Anything that gets you moving and feeling as if there’s something to be done and enjoyed.
Having faith. Schiraldi’s acceptance of life-after-employment has been an ongoing process. Answers, he says, don’t just show up in a box at your doorstep. They build as you take stock of who you really are, out of the suit and out of the office.
The trouble for men is that they are notorious for not asking directions. They don’t ask for help because that’s a sign of weakness, Schiraldi says. Men, he says, take care of themselves in short, unsustained bursts — they join a gym for three months, then quit. They start projects they don’t finish.
Much of the time, this lack of direction and lack of willingness to seek help masks a man’s lack of confidence in himself. Particularly for men who used to be in charge, it is incredibly hard to shift gears and just be a “normal” person.
“For me, it was all about choosing to have faith in myself,” Schiraldi says. “About having confidence in who I really am.”
Schiraldi notes that we in this society are taught to be very goal-and-results oriented.
“We’re taught to feel good that we have a goal and that we’re successful when we cross that finish line,” he says. “But what happens if we don’t cross that finish line?” What happens when your monetary goal goes unreached? Or you didn’t quite make the impact you had expected in your career?
What happens is, people get depressed, Schiraldi says. They start feeling worthless because they’ve tied all their self-worth into things that can’t really be controlled. Men have heart attacks trying to control their money and jobs and reputations their whole lives, he says, when they should be focusing more on what they have to offer the world.
The Men’s Center. Schiraldi hopes that one of his lasting legacies will be the Men’s Center of Princeton, a support center he operates out of his office on Nassau Street that looks to bring men into a safe, non-competitive environment where they can learn about doing positive constructive things, such as volunteering.
It also looks to encourage men to be role models. “There are so few healthy role models for boys and young men these days,” Schiraldi says. “There’s no one to teach them what it means to be a man. A real man, not a ‘Jersey Shore’ man. Boys need men who can teach them to be bold and be courageous, but also to be humble and honest.”
There is a lot of pressure in being a man and there is a lot of pressure to conform to rigid, unproductive (and often miserable) models of what manhood really is about, Schiraldi says. He is looking for men who can teach others to have the courage to be themselves, through shared stories and life lessons.
Schiraldi learned a good amount of what manhood means from his father, a career insurance salesman who emigrated from Italy. “My father definitely taught me the value of hard work and standing up for what you believe in,” he says.
More than money, Schiraldi says, retirement is about the attitude you take into it. “Some people go into it thinking ‘I’m just marking time until I die,’ and if that’s your attitude, you plop yourself in front of the TV.” As for Schiraldi? He’s thinking of adding a multi-cultural support center program to his oeuvre and reaching out to more men to tell them that they are not alone.
We all go through the same experiences, and that’s what connects us, Schiraldi says. “We can feel so isolated and alone. But we’re not.”