Kim Carney / msnbc.com
A rising number of people have seen their retirement plans evaporate. As 401(k)s dwindle, their dreams of golden years are being replaced by feelings of hopelessness and  anger.
By Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 11/20/2008 9:51:12 AM ET 2008-11-20T14:51:12

It was so close. And then, it wasn’t.

Fifty-year-old Eddie Whitlock thought he was closing in on his hard-earned golden years. According to his master plan, in just five short years he’d retire from his job as executive director for Mental Health America of Northeast Georgia. Then he’d turn his attention to the important things: golf, travel and finally writing that novel.

But this fall, after months of watching his 401(k) dwindle and his stock earnings sink, he accepted his new retirement reality: His golden years would be delayed another 10. If they ever came at all.

“I really think I’ll be working until I die,” says Whitlock, who lives in Athens, Ga. “I’ll be at work till the day they carry me out on a stretcher with a coroner’s tag tied to my big toe.”

One of the biggest worries for those on the brink of retirement used to be how to fill all that spare time. But as the economic meltdown devastates the savings of millions of Americans, a rising number of older workers are now realizing that retirement instead will have to come much later than they'd planned — if at all. And some of those who had only just to begun to enjoy their leisure years are now having to tuck aside their dreams and, in some cases, their pride, to return to the workforce.

For many, feelings of hopelessness, despair, anger and shame have darkened what until very recently they'd banked on being a new beginning.

“It's a real sense of shock,” says Phyllis Moen, a University of Minnesota sociologist who studies adjustment to retirement. “Here they thought they were in control, and they created a life that works — and suddenly, they’ve lost control. I think what's happening is a real upending of expectations of the 50s, 60s and 70s — of what life’s going to be for this group of people.”

Psychologists say those going through this kind of financial crisis may feel a spike in anxiety, panic attacks and depression . And for some, suicide may seem like the only way out. One msnbc.com reader from Cleveland, Ohio, wrote, "I have contemplated suicide, but my family does not have enough money to bury me.”

During the Great Depression, suicide rates rose from 14 to 17.4 per 100,000 people in 1933, according to the American Association of Suicidology, a nonprofit organization that promotes research and training in suicide prevention.

Psychologists are cautious about saying whether they expect a similar increase during these financial hard times, but seniors are in an age group already at higher risk for suicide: Although adults 65 and older make up just 12 percent of the population, they accounted for 16 percent of suicide deaths in 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s going to be a profound sense of loss for some people who had expected to enter their last stage of life and just enjoy it — and now they’re having to go back to work,” says Jennifer Harkstein, a New York City clinical psychologist. “For people who have expected to be retired by 70 or 75, there’s going to be some loss, some grief, that they can’t go and live these years that they’ve planned for.”

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For Whitlock, the biggest blow came from the increasingly volatile stock market, as he watched his nonprofit employer’s account lose 25 percent of its value over the last year and a half. When he says he’s too afraid now to even peek at his 401(k), he’s only half joking.

“In the old days, people would be guaranteed an income for life, and they’d have an age at which it was clear they should retire,” says Alicia Munnell, an economist and director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. “We’re now shifting to an age of 401(k) plans, which is shifting all the risks and responsibility to the individuals.”

Downsizing dreams
For those who have retired, it’s a matter of downsizing dreams. So far, 63-year-old Edith Durrant’s retirement years haven’t turned out the way she pictured.

“My real dream always was to own a motor home and just travel,” says Durrant, a retired postal service worker who lives in Bellingham, Wash. Because she and her husband, Ben, had saved a modest nest egg, she says, “I didn’t think I would ever have to worry so much about money again.”

But five years ago, Edith Durrant, who is both epileptic and diabetic, had a particularly intense seizure that sent her into a coma for seven days. The cost of her hospital stay, her medications and the year and a half of care it took her to get well again drained everything the couple had saved for their retirement. Still, with her pension and Social Security benefits, they were doing OK — until Ben Durrant was laid off from his job as a sales manager at Office Max in June. Five months later, he’s still looking for work.

“Don’t get me wrong. We eat. We have a roof over our heads. By the look of my belly, it’s not bad,” says Ben Durrant, who’s 59. “But still, there’s the other side of it. You look on the Internet and it talks about these high fashion things and the trips and things like that. You look at them and you wonder — where did mine go? I’m not going to be able to do that. It’s a very sobering thought.”

Adjusting expectations
The Durrants have resigned themselves to their retirement reality, which is what experts recommend: During an economic downturn of this magnitude, it’s time to let go of most golden-year fantasies.

“I mean, I’m of that age. We’ve all had a disappointment,” says economist Munnell, who turns 66 next month. That’s the age she typically recommends that people retire, and she always imagined she’d follow her own advice. Now, she’s buckling down for at least another five years on the job.

“I’m very like everybody else — I felt like we had put aside enough money, but I didn’t plan on a buffer of 20 percent,” she says. Speaking for herself, she says, “The feeling is one of failure, even though it was really very hard to anticipate anything like this. You do feel like you failed.”

For those at or near retirement age, there’s no more time to save. There’s no magic investment to uncover. It’s best to face your 401(k) and lower your expectations — fast, Munnell says.

“You’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt, and play them the best you can,” she says. “Mourn if it’s a serious loss for you, but then, candidly — get over it.”

And then get to work. With the unemployment rate at its highest in more than a decade, those lucky enough to have a job should forget all thoughts of leaving, says Munnell, who co-wrote “Working Longer: The Solution to the Retirement Income Challenge,” published earlier this year. “(But) the problem is, it takes two to tango here. Employers have to be willing to hire people or to retain them.”

‘How many no’s can you stand?’
But many of those looking for jobs in their 50s and 60s didn’t plan on leaving their old jobs so soon. Some are pushed into early retirement, or laid off by hemorrhaging industries.

Each day since the day he was laid off from his sales job in June, Ben Durrant has looked for work. But as the days turn into weeks and months, he can feel his self-worth slipping. It doesn’t matter if he’s the best salesman there is, he says. He’s 59 years old. Few places will invest the time and resources into hiring someone that age, who might retire in just a few years, he says.

“In a lot of ways, it’s disheartening,” Durrant says. “How many no’s can you stand? It hurts after a while. It tears away at your self-image and your self-respect. We determine our self-worth out of the job we have. And you’re sitting at home and you’ve got three days worth of whiskers on you and you say, ‘I just want to stay home in my jammies,’ but you can’t.

“It knocks your self-esteem down, but you just have to say, ‘I’m worth this,” and go out and try one more time,” Durrant says.

He’s getting used to the idea that he’ll be making much less money than he was as a manager; he’s now looking at jobs that would pay $10 or $12 an hour. “That’s pretty hard to deal with when you want to go visit the grandkids,” says Durrant.

Finding ways to cope
“For people at the top of their earnings, regardless of their area, when they're offered jobs that are eight or nine dollars an hour, they just can't reconcile that. They think, ‘I'm worth more than that,’” sociologist Moen says. But that was then. Now it’s key to “get away from the idea of what you were, ‘cause you’re not going to get paid what you used to get paid,” she says.

For those facing dire financial problems, take the job you get, Moen says. Think of it as a stop-gap, because “it’s easier to get a job when you have a job,” she says.

And each time a self-loathing idea floats through your brain — Could I have worked harder? Saved more? — squash it.

“The biggest thing to recognize is, yes, you’re in this and yes, you’re going to have to cope, but it isn’t your fault. It’s a public issue,” Moen says. “This is not something you caused. You need to try to weather it, but it’s not your fault.”

If you can get a job, “it will be satisfying in the sense that this is a scary time, because it seems like everything is out of control and no one knows what’s happening, but if you can control something like that, you can say to yourself, ‘Well, I got out and I got a job,’” Munnell says. “Control what you can control.”

In order to gain a little control herself, Munnell has banned herself from watching too much Bloomberg or CNN and obsessing over how far the market dipped today. Other experts suggest squirreling away what little you can — even just $50 extra a week, to experience the magic of watching a savings account that’s slowly growing, to remind yourself that some things are still in your control.

Otherwise, let your family talk you down, take long walks with the dog and keep in mind: No one has this thing under control, experts say.

“We know that life hasn’t handed us a bowl of cherries. We got half a bowl of pits,” Durrant says. “But, dangit, you do what you need to do. You pop your head up the next morning and go on.”

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