Posted On May 2, 2018

Can Dogs Teach Us Something about Retirement

Reprinted with permission.
Susan Ackley

I love dogs, especially my dog, Carly, a Wheaten Terrier. Besides being a delightful companion, she’s smart, adorable, and howls like Carly Simon hitting high notes. So, with pleasure I watched the 142nd Westminster Dog Show recently. During the show, I was struck by the number of dogs that the commentators said were ‘retiring’, which included the dog who won Best In Show, Flynn, a Bichon Frise. It got me thinking: Can dogs can teach us something about retirement?

With show dogs or pet dogs, what dogs do best is live in the moment.  Have you ever watched a dog play? They are fully engaged and in the ‘flow” of that activity. They have no concern for the past or future, just that present moment. This is often not the case when it comes to someone entering retirement, one of the most life changing transitions of our adult lives.

Recently, I met with a woman named Sandy, who had retired several months ago and was struggling. The first thing she said to me as she plopped heavily onto my office couch was “I thought it would be different.”  She told me that, before she retired, she didn’t think about her day-to-day life in retirement.  She said “I thought I would find plenty of ways to fill my time” and “really looked forward to finally having time to myself”.

Sandy’s husband is still working, so Sandy is on her own week days. Until the day we met, she told me she had sat at her computer all day, every weekday, watching YouTube cat videos or streaming shows. Ten minutes before her husband was due home from work, she quickly dressed and took out dinner things, so he wouldn’t know she had “wasted the day in my robe online”.

She told me she felt stuck and angry with herself that she had been “more concerned with my retirement party than my actual retirement”.  She felt she had lost the part of herself that connected her with the world and she didn’t know what to do to fix it.  She saw her future as “an endless abyss of sameness”.

Wanting to support Sandy exploration of how she wants to spend her time in retirement, I introduced the concept of mindfulness. I asked if she was willing to practice staying in the moment for her first coaching homework assignment. I explained that when she was online, if she deemed watching the next YouTube cat video was what she wanted in that moment, she should continue.

However, if the next cat video wasn’t what she really wanted in that moment, she should do something else. She didn’t speak, she dropped her head and looked at me skeptically over the top of her glasses for a time, then surprised me by committing to the goal of mindfulness for the week. I also commended her on her ability to ask for help and being open to something new.

Fast forward to our first video coaching session, Sandy was excited to share her experience. She said she had a difficult start as she had spent “my career primarily analyzing the past”. But she acknowledged that she found energy to take action on thoughts she had previously ignored.

She got her hair cut, connected with a work friend for lunch, disclosed to her husband her routine the past months, but she was most pleased with herself for unpacking her retirement gifts and sending thank you cards. She admitted to spending one day online, but that she had also gone outside that day in the snowstorm “just to see the snowflakes in the moment to contemplate them mindfully”.

I first thought she was mocking me, but then she talked about experiencing the cold, not negatively, but as” fresh and clean and beautiful”.  She said she wanted to keep practicing mindfulness. Be still my coach’s heart!

While dogs may retire differently than humans, what we can learn from them is how to be more mindful in our lives. They live intent only on the moment, not the winner’s podium or the next dog show – but this moment.

When we pay attention to things in the moment, we are able to notice small gems we hadn’t been aware of even though they may be there in front of us every day. It can give us the ability to learn something about ourselves and find ways to make ourselves happier. Sandy wants to continue retirement coaching, as she hopes that, like Flynn, the Bichon Frise, she too can become Best In Show in her own retirement journey.