When the Rev. Jerry Blankinship retired as chaplain at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, it felt right.
"I had worked for almost 50 years in one pastoral ministry or another and 32 years at Sunrise as chaplain," says Blankinship, 78, who even had waited until he was almost 75 to retire because, at 65, "I didn't feel like retiring at all.
"But I just felt -- I don't know how to put it, except to say that enough is enough. It was time."
So, just more than 2½ years ago, Blankinship retired. Two months later, he began to feel physically and mentally exhausted. Adrift. Depressed.
All about doing something millions of American worker bees dream about, the good Lord and Social Security willing, doing themselves someday.
It turns out that retirement can be a tough transition, at least for some prospective retirees, and Blankinship's reaction to the prospect of days upon months upon years of clockless free time isn't uncommon.
The problem often begins when prospective retirees think of retirement only in terms of subtraction, by eliminating the responsibilities of a job from their lives but not thinking about what they might replace it with.
"I think a lot of it is people often want to get off the treadmill, they want to get out of the grind," says Dr. Lisa Rosenberg, a geriatrics specialist and assistant professor of medicine at Touro University Nevada College of Osteopathic Medicine. "But, for many people, their plan is not to do anything, and that's not good for us physically or mentally."
Inactivity can make retirees "prone to depression" and diminish "cognition, our ability to think and remember and process," she says. "Our brains are like anything else: We lose our abilities if we don't continue to use what we have."
Generally speaking -- and ignoring the issue of money, which, alone, can go a long way toward shaping a retirement -- "the people who are most successful in retirement ... are people who have a plan of what to do with their time," Rosenberg says.
Some prospective retirees approach retirement with "almost like a vacation mentality," notes Donna Wilburn, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
"When you go into retirement, you expect it to feel like a vacation. Then you are going through the honeymoon phase, which feels like a vacation and might be one month or six months. But once reality hits you that you're not going back, then you have to restructure your identity: What am I supposed to do for the next 20 years?
"Now it hits you. You feel empty. You don't feel like you have a purpose. You feel kind of aimless," Wilburn says. "And people are not expecting that. There's no retirement counseling, that, 'OK, you're ready to retire. We're going to send you to a counselor so you can understand the process.' "
Blankinship felt more than ready to begin this new phase in his life, joking that he even had studied geriatric issues as part of his counseling training. He felt fortunate that he was retiring on his own schedule, that his finances were in place, and that he had activities and friends to keep him busy.
But what Blankinship didn't expect was discovering how strongly he was "self-identified by my job. And when I was no longer senior chaplain at Sunrise Hospital, I began to wonder, 'Who the heck am I?' and 'Who am I now?'
"I had defined myself by what I did, like I think most people do. We define ourselves by what we do, and when you aren't doing something, then there's kind of a moment where you say, 'My gosh, who am I?' And, I became depressed."
It's not uncommon, Wilburn says. For some newly minted retirees, "the loss of identity and purpose is huge. It can trigger a major depression."
Men tend to do it more often than women, Wilburn says, while Rosenberg notes that it is particularly common among professionals.
"A lot of businesspeople, doctors and lawyers are kind of classic people who can't let go because their identity is very much tied to what they got paid for," Rosenberg says. "So, it's healthy even before retirement to have other outlets -- an artistic outlet or a strong network of friends -- because if your whole life is work and you leave, you're really stuck starting over."
Doctors, teachers, ministers and others in helping professions also may find themselves more susceptible to a rougher transition from workplace to retirement.
"They've become very accustomed to people needing them, and it can be quite addicting to feel needed," Rosenberg says. "So if people are used to feeling needed and appreciated ... people can miss that."
Not even a two-month transition period during which Blankinship worked part time with his successor helped to ease his transition into retirement.
"The day I turned in my keys and beeper, it was a loss," he says. "It was a period of grief. I came home and didn't know what to do with myself. I was depressed and I was sleeping, like, 12 or 14 hours a day. I was so tired."
The sudden separation from daily contact with workplace friends and colleagues -- "the interplay, the camaraderie" -- also hit home, Blankinship recalls. "All I wanted to do was sleep.
"Then I went to see a doctor -- my regular family doctor -- and he nailed it when he said, 'You're in a grieving process.' "
Janice Alpern, 72, retired in 2006 from her job as a customer service representative for the Las Vegas Valley Water District. When she retired, Alpern discovered that a paycheck represents more than money.
"One of the first feelings was the paycheck and that you have no worth without a paycheck," she explains. "That was my feeling: That you do something, you get your paycheck, and that was a reward for your hard work and you earned your reward."
Like Blankinship, Alpern loved her job and was confident that it was time to move on. But she, too, was surprised to find that she missed the routine of her job, the people with whom she worked and the satisfaction she gained from doing her job well.
Then there was the matter of simply filling a large chunk of time each day. "The week loomed large," Alpern says, "and I didn't know how to fill it."
Then, Alpern heard about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She signed up for a few programs and, during an open house, saw a booth for the Nevada AARP and became a volunteer for the organization.
Alpern notes that most workers who are planning to retire review their finances and the other nuts-and-bolts aspects of living without a regular paycheck. But, she says, few take the time to figure out what they'll actually do during retirement.
"So many of us are living longer," she says, "and you need to fill your time in meaningful ways."
Margaret "Peg" Rees, vice provost for educational outreach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says new retirees who are seeking activities to pursue in retirement often do begin with classes and programs offered through UNLV.
"I think people just switch their energy into new directions," she says. "Some cook, some come back to school to get retooled, some take professional development classes and some go off in an entirely new employment direction. Even when we look at the university/academic side, we have people that are in their 70s and 80s finishing their degrees because that's something they've never been able to do and, now, want to and have the time and resources to do it."
Also beneficial, Rees says, is that such programs offer retirees a reason to get out of the house and a way to make social contacts. (For more information, visit http://continuingeducation.unlv.edu or call 895-5486.)
Social isolation can lead retirees into depression, Rosenberg notes. "People who have strong social ties tend to be physically and mentally healthier. Isolation is bad."
Blankinship toughed out his depression for about three months. Then, he says, "a pastor friend of mine took me out to lunch and said, 'How are you doing?' I said I wasn't doing very good.' "
The friend suggested that Blankinship take on a bit -- just a little bit -- of volunteer work. Blankinship did, "just a couple (of) hours of work a week at the church" and doing a few home visits.
"The thing I discovered is that there needs to be some routine in your life. The difference between working and not working is, the routine is optional, but it's still important," he says.
Today, Blankinship schedules standing get-togethers -- lunches, dinners and other events -- with friends and family. He volunteers. He reads (mostly history), takes in movies ("I've seen probably more movies in the three years since I retired than I did the 32 years I was at Sunrise" ) and has more easily embraced the new rhythms of retired life. Also, helping to reinforce his daily routine is caring for Glamis, his enthusiastically friendly mixed-breed dog.
Blankinship says he now enjoys retirement, largely because he has been able to create a new identity for himself that isn't built upon what he does.
"Little by little, through the help of some friends, not so much intentionally but just by accident of nature, I began to realize that who I am is not dependent on what I do, that who I am is who I am," he says. "I'm a father. I'm a grandfather. I'm a friend. It doesn't have to do with academic degrees or clergy ordination."
Based on her own experience, Alpern suggests that those who are considering retirement give serious thought about how they wish to spend it. She also suggests checking resources such as those at UNLV "ahead of time," and urges prospective retirees to "not be one-dimensional" but, instead, seek out a variety of interests to pursue.
Rosenberg suggests building social networks through clubs, alumni groups and professional organizations before retiring, while Blankinship urges prospective retirees to give as much thought to the emotional aspects of retirement as they do to their finances and other basic necessities of retirement.
And, Blankinship suggests, think positively.
"I would think you need to look at the glass as half-full," he says. "I think we all could complain about things, but what good does that get you?"
In fact, Blankinship now realizes that one of retirement's blessings is the array of choices it offers.
"I think when I first was retired, I didn't realize how many choices I had," he says, smiling. "You've got zillions of choices. You could do anything."
These days, when Blankinship stops by the hospital to visit somebody, "everybody is glad to see me and they say, 'Would you ever think of coming back?' "
Blankinship laughs. "No. No, no, no."
Contact reporter John Przybys at email@example.com or 702-383-0280.