Retirement for Firefighters: Finding Balance in the Home
By: Jada Hudson, M.S., LCPC, CADC
Retirement is a relatively new concept, and it can almost seem unnatural when it finally happens. It brings in unexpected transitions, especially for firefighters and other first responders. As with everything else in life, it is best to be prepared before entering a new situation. Being armed with the proper tools, firefighters and their spouses can make the most out of their new life together and live that happy retirement dream that we seem to hear so much about.
A New Definition of Retirement
Retirement has been evolving since its conceptualization back in the early twentieth century. The millions of Americans who have retirement on the horizon most certainly grew up with the belief that retirement is a life that is filled with bickering couples, long lunch dates, and weekly card games; if they were lucky, it also included a condo somewhere warm. Not only is this idea outdated, it’s not healthy or realistic.
People are now retiring with more passion and energy. Retirement is a second life—another chance to do something you love and spend your time doing things that make you feel fulfilled. It could be a second career, further education, being more creative, or volunteering. The options are endless. This precious time should not be wasted time; it should be invested into your happiness and into the world around you.
The road to get to this happy and fulfilling retirement needs to be taken seriously. It requires planning and necessary conversations with those important to you, especially spouses. When people hear the term ‘retirement planning’, they often think of the financial aspects involved. However, finances are only one piece to the retirement puzzle. Being prepared for retirement is also about being prepared in your marriage, being prepared emotionally, and being prepared to spend your time wisely. These necessary conversations should take place as early as five years before you retire.
According to Mitch Anthony—author of The New Retirementality—it is important to take advantage of this time in retirement. You will have a healthier retirement with yourself and with your spouse if you are able to create a plan for how you will use time and energy in new ways. Firefighters are used to solving problems and helping people. A healthy retirement for firefighters may involve using their time to help leave a positive impact on future generations. Psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development is made up of eight stages of human development from birth to death. The seventh stage he explores is generativity versus stagnation. He explains that adults begin to search for ways to leave their mark on the next generation. If adults successfully tackle this stage, they will feel a strong sense of worth, which is very important for retired firefighters. This could include taking care of grandchildren, volunteering at schools, or mentoring younger firefighters. Unfortunately, if retired firefighters are not able to find their own way to contribute, it will leave them to feel stagnate and unimportant. This, unfortunately, is what would lead to more unhealthy mental issues that firefighters can face. By taking the appropriate time to plan for retirement, firefighters and their spouses can take care to avoid these common problems.
You will be creating a new life together and many roles will be changing. Typically, firefighters retire earlier than the national standard of 65. Because of this, the spouse is perhaps still working. The roles in the house are sure to change and the goal of retirement planning is to make it an easier transition. Who will do the laundry? Who is in charge of dinner? Should we make a new budget? Is the retiree going to take up a new hobby or a second career?
You have most likely spent the majority of your marriage with specific roles. You have organized your work schedules and social calendars to align with each other, you each have specific household duties, and you may only get a few times a week to spend quality time just the two of you. As human beings, we crave routine, normalcy, and balance. Firefighter couples have been forced to make the 24-hour shift a normal part of life, and it works. So now how do you deal with the wealth of time? More importantly, how do you deal with the loss of the firehouse life?
As with all relationship issues, communication is the best way to start. The more we can talk and listen to one another, the more chance we have at successfully overcoming the hurdle. What is life going to look like beyond the world of 24-hour shifts? Each person in the relationship may have an idea of what that will look like, but how do the two visions line up with each other?
Unfortunately, a firefighter’s retirement will also force him or her to examine the emotional trauma of the previous thirty years on the job. Firefighters can go their whole career without dealing with much depression, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, or addiction. It is when the retirement begins that these issues may arise. Throughout their career, firefighters are filled with roles and responsibilities at the firehouse, in the community, and at home. There are rarely days with nothing to do, and they enjoy that energy of the constant calendar. When this stops, they find themselves searching for a sense of self and belongingness. One common occurrence among newly retired firefighters is a loss of identity. Thoughts of loneliness may set in, and memories from the past seem to resurface. This can bring up a dwelling depression or PTSD, and if not addressed, it can lead to failing relationships, substance abuse, or suicide.
When a newly retired firefighter is faced with these mental and emotional issues, it is important that the spouse is aware of what is happening. The retiree is going to need support and patience while working through this. Counseling is an excellent resource for the retired firefighter to explore. It is important to utilize all resources and also open up your conversations with loved ones.
Retirement for firefighters can bring a lot of unexpected stress. Working through this stress can lead them to find the happiness and balance that they want and deserve. Together, couples in first responder relationships can find meaning in this exciting new phase of life.