alrm-clock_xxl_9110203Retirement often seems to be about trade-offs. You may have more time to do the things you love but less money to devote to those things. You may have more opportunities to exercise and enjoy life, yet you have to navigate new health care and insurance issues. You can travel more, but that might mean connecting less often with former colleagues and community friends. You may finally get to focus on being a full-time grandparent or spouse, but your previous career-focused identity must be left behind.

Counselors are trained to help clients navigate this changing landscape as they cross the “finish line” into what may be the most carefree and satisfying time of their lives. The counseling room is a great place for clients to engage in goal setting and strategize for the optimal retirement experience. So, when counselors reach that golden age of retirement themselves, it’s safe to assume they will slide right into the new paradigm with ease, right?

Not so fast.

“Counselors recognize retirement as a part of career development,” says Sandy Magnuson, a retired school counselor and American Counseling Association member in Greeley, Colo., “[but] I don’t think I integrated that theoretical notion into my life. That was about other people.” Retiring at the earlier end of the spectrum at age 60, Magnuson faced the question that all counselors are likely to confront: What happens after a career spent helping others?

Magnuson’s life had been built around her connections to the counseling community. “I met my husband at a counselors conference. We ate, slept and drank counseling and counselor education,” she says. “We attended conferences. We participated in professional organizations in a variety of ways. We read counseling literature. We wrote articles together. We talked about counseling, teaching and scholarship. Counseling was more than a profession. It permeated nearly every aspect of our lives. As I thought about retirement, I worried, ‘If I am not a counselor or counselor educator, who am I? How do I introduce myself? How do I remain credible? Will my life have purpose? What will I do with all of my time?’ I had to redefine myself.”

Facing that string of tough questions, many retiring counselors opt to remain connected to the helping community. Opportunities for engagement range from simply reading up on new treatment trends to opening limited private practices. In fact, keeping a toe in the counseling waters may be the healthiest choice of all. According to a widely cited University of Maryland study published in 2009, those who keep working on a limited basis during retirement have better health outcomes, including fewer major diseases and disabilities, than those who quit working altogether. Furthermore, the study revealed that those who continue part-time work in their original field enjoy better mental health than those who retire and blaze an entirely new path.

Before retiring from full-time work in 2003, Estela Pledge provided mental health and substance abuse counseling at a community mental health center in Macomb, Ill. Now, at 71, she may have the ideal work situation. Pledge has a small private practice and works part time at the Western Illinois University Health Center, where she provides clinical services as well as supervision to interns and graduate assistants. “Because I can limit the amount of private clients I see, and with the limited hours at the university, I have the best deal. Both of these jobs are relaxing in comparison with working at the mental health center. The students at the university are young, and the women I see in private practice are motivated. So this has been great,” says Pledge, an ACA member who still lives in Macomb.

Pledge has had to learn to live with less money and find outlets for her spare time, but she appreciates the opportunities semiretirement affords her to spend time with her grandson and friends. “Some colleagues and I met, and they wondered how I had transitioned so easily,” she says. “I told them that I did not retire totally since I went to work at the university. But I was smart enough to set boundaries with the university so I was not burdened with work I no longer wanted to do. I also started my practice prior to my formal retirement from the mental health system. I advised [my colleagues] to have a plan that they could afford and enjoy.”

Counselors looking toward retirement should be certain to fully understand their financial commitments before making the transition, Pledge says. And after retiring, she adds, they need to be intentional about finding ways to have fun and keep learning. “Get together with other counselors who have retired, and read, read and read,” she advises.

Preparing for the retirement plunge

David Denino came face-to-face with retirement a little sooner than he had planned. In 2009, he was offered early retirement from Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) in New Haven. He had expected to have three to five more years to put his ultimate retirement plan in place. Instead, he had to make a decision in the span of two months.

Before ultimately choosing to take the offer, Denino wondered what it would be like to step away from his professional identity and career-long connection to the university community. “And how would that transfer to carving out a new identity? I spent my career providing counseling and teaching college students and adults, and the time came to practice the transitions [I] had preached,” he says. Today, the ACA member continues as SCSU’s director emeritus of counseling services and is a part-time faculty member in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology.

Denino says the most significant postretirement challenge he faced revolved around the dramatic change in his routine, which was suddenly void of daily structure and opportunities for camaraderie with colleagues. “As counselors, we absolutely incorporate these types of plans in our work but often may be remiss in personal application of what life will be like after helping others care for themselves,” he says.

As such, Denino offers advice for other counselors to consider when it comes to planning for retirement. “Start now,” he says. “If possible, build a plan that is at least two or three years out. If you don’t have that time, the emotional [process of] disengaging from your work may be arduous. Think of what you will stay connected to, then do it. Increase your connections to your enjoyable activities as soon you can. Think about a longer transition, perhaps by leaving full-time work [for] part-time work.”

Regardless, he cautions that no amount of planning will fully prepare counselors for the changes that retirement will introduce. “Resilience is something all counselors preach, but it becomes something we now have to practice,” he says. “Professional connections will disperse — people move on, and so will you. … You will feel alone at times, just like your clients and patients have. You helped them through the process. Now help yourself with resources you have gathered over the years.”

Adds Denino, “It will take time to figure this out, and often the first year out may be the most difficult. Many career development theories connect work with personality and identity, and we lose some of that [when we retire].”

Still, Denino emphasizes the positives that accompany the transition, including fewer worries about clients, budgets, billing and so on. He also highlights the joy of having more control over one’s schedule and finally making time for “all those things” on the to-do list.

Practical matters

No matter what the retirement fantasy looks like — from maintaining a small caseload of favorite clients to sailing off into the sunset entirely — there are certain practical issues that all counselors must consider, including the likelihood of living on less money, possible relocation and the risk of being isolated from longtime supportive relationships.

Depending on a counselor’s work situation, the retirement process also may require careful decision-making in terms of closing a practice and helping current clients find new resources. To protect clients from feeling abandoned, the ACA Code of Ethics requires that counselors follow proper termination procedures and make appropriate arrangements for clients who will need to continue treatment. Accurate informed consent must be made for a retiring counselor to transfer case files to a client’s new treatment provider, and retired counselors also must make adequate arrangements for long-term client record accessibility.

Denino advises counselors thinking about retirement to act deliberately and afford themselves plenty of time to work through the ethical and legal issues involved in terminating client relationships. “All practitioners should give adequate notice of their retirement,” he says, noting that not all clients will need the same amount of time. “A key feature is to make sure there is enough time to find another provider. In my case, having worked in a university setting, transfers become a bit easier [because] introductions to new counselors are readily available.” (Note: As a member benefit, ACA members receive free, confidential ethical consultations; contact 800.347.6647 ext. 314 or

Of course, there are also emotional issues involved in closing a counseling practice. Once again, Denino advises counselors to give themselves as much time as possible. “Certainly, we have to handle the undertaking of telling clients we are leaving, and that can be a difficult process for both the client and counselor,” he says. “It takes time to work through that process, so planning is essential. It’s a mix of both transitions and closure, depending on the relationship. We definitely have to face our personal emotions throughout the journey — excitement about pursuing new opportunities mixed with leaving a therapeutic relationship.”

Having retired in 2010, Magnuson admits she is still struggling to determine what to do with the journals, books, files and counseling equipment she amassed throughout her career. “We diligently saved every issue of every publication thinking that someone would be so happy to receive a complete set. That was before the digital era when hard copies are neither valued nor wanted,” she says. “It was painful to take boxes of journals to the recycling bins, [so] we’re not done with that part yet.”

There are also choices to make about which professional associations to maintain. Magnuson acknowledges that letting go of some of her professional credentials was particularly difficult. “I worked so hard to achieve them, yet I simply could not justify the expense of maintaining them,” she says. “Those decisions did not come easily. I still have both licenses — LPC [licensed professional counselor] and school counseling. In fact, I just renewed my school counseling license for five years. Without insurance, I won’t practice, [but] I just needed to keep those licenses for a while longer.”

After 40 years in the counseling field, including time as a school counselor and in private practice, Trudie Atkinson envisioned relocating as part of her retirement. Winding down a career that included chapters in New Orleans and Chicago, the ACA member knew she wanted to retire near family in the Eugene, Ore., area where she was raised. She found a job in that area working as a therapist and supervisor at a residential treatment center for young children. She worked there full time for four years, retiring once she was able to obtain Medicare coverage at age 65. She now maintains a small private practice, provides supervision to other clinicians and volunteers at a community counseling center, putting in three to four hours of clinical work per week.

“The primary challenges in relocating were that I was leaving trusted colleagues and friends, and that I faced an onerous licensure process in Oregon. This latter took two years to complete,” Atkinson says. “I knew I wanted to work until age 65 for the sake of health insurance, and I didn’t know what employment I would find. I couldn’t expect to build a sustainable private practice quickly, and the economy in the Northwest at the time was dismal. I also wanted to be available to my mother in her declining years while continuing to work.

“The good news was that I found an interesting job that used my training and skills, while introducing me to new emphases in therapeutic work. I also found an opportunity to volunteer at a counseling center similar to one with which I was involved in New Orleans, giving back to the community by counseling, training and supervision. Both my employment and the community center provided contact with many professional colleagues. I found a way to continue working and to help with my mother’s care through supportive meetings with family members.”

Magnuson also relocated before retiring fully and acknowledges the decision was challenging. “At age 50, I began thinking seriously about where I wanted to grow old and die,” she says. “My husband and I began spending more time with friends from my hometown. I applied for a faculty position in that area. The position was offered to me, and I accepted it even though I had a compelling sense that it was not going to be a good fit. I was right. I believe this contributed to my retiring earlier than I would have otherwise. And, yet, I can’t imagine not living close to my extended family and hometown community. I shared my aunt’s final days with her. We attend our friends’ grandchildren’s ballgames. I see my lifelong friend a couple times a month. We go to alumni banquets. We celebrate milestones and grieve losses with people I’ve known all my life.”

Magnuson continues to contemplate the financial aspects of this new phase of life. “Certainly we have had to adjust our lifestyle, and I’m painfully aware of the financial challenges we may encounter with longer term health care,” she says.

Because she retired at age 60, Magnuson also had to find private health insurance before qualifying for Medicare benefits. “I had no idea that would be a problem,” she says. “I was and still am incredibly healthy, [but] insurance companies viewed me as a high risk because of my age. I had no idea that the process would be so time consuming, costly — in terms of providing information and obtaining additional medical tests — stressful and extensive. I was also stunned by the cost of my premiums.”

The good life

What does Magnuson most like about being retired? Hands down, not having to use an alarm clock. “That’s the best!” she says. “I value the additional time for self-care. I immediately began a weight-training program. I have walked since the early [1980s] and have enjoyed longer walks [in retirement] in new places. I didn’t remember what it was like to feel rested.”

On this point, Magnuson urges other counselors to consider the impact that reduced stamina can have on their ability to serve clients. “I had observed a phenomenon that I absolutely did not want to repeat,” she says. “Some of my former colleagues ‘retired’ long before they resigned. Others became irritable, bitter, cranky and impatient. I did not want to stay in any position if I could not continue to perform at the standard I expected for myself, if I could not be productive or if I could not be cheerful and happy.”

In retirement, Magnuson continues her writing, including co-authoring a mental health column in a rural newspaper with her husband, Ken Norem. She also enjoys formal storytelling, participating on local organizational boards, staying active in politics and involvement in her faith community.

The individuals interviewed for this article repeatedly recommended that their fellow counselors find ways to volunteer their time — whether in counseling environments or other venues — upon retiring. At the same time, Magnuson also cautions retirees to guard against overextending themselves. “I had often heard [from retirees], ‘I don’t know how I had time to work.’ That’s been my experience as I essentially redefined myself. At first I said yes to everything. Then I had to go through a fairly challenging, even difficult, vetting process to decide what I would continue doing and what I would not continue doing. Resigning in the world of paid employment is much easier than in the world of volunteering,” she cautions.

Magnuson also decided to maintain her ACA membership as a way of preserving her counselor identity. “I appreciate the fact that ACA encourages continued membership with reduced dues,” she says. “I believe our profession has a tradition of honoring and respecting those who have gone before us.”

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