Editor’s Note: Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, documentary film producer and author, including two books about gender and family and the forthcoming “Mean,” a book about women behaving badly, to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2024. Her latest film, “King Coal,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2023. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
This week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California asked to be temporarily replaced on the Senate Judiciary Committee while she recovers from a case of shingles, acknowledging that her extended absence—since at least early March—is delaying the work of the committee, which includes confirming Democratic judicial nominees. She has missed 58 Senate votes since she was diagnosed in February.
Feinstein is the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate and, at 89, the oldest member of Congress (Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa is also 89, but is a few months younger). Her health has been in question for some time. A year ago, reports emerged that colleagues were worried that Feinstein was no longer fit to serve, citing troubling interactions indicating the senator suffered from memory loss and diminished comprehension. At the time, she defended her position and record in a statement, saying in part, “I remain committed to do what I said I would when I was re-elected in 2018.” In February, she announced that she would not run for reelection when her term ends in 2024.
Some of her colleagues think her departure should come sooner. This week, two fellow Democrats – Rep. Ro Khanna of California and Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota—called for her resignation on Twitter; Khanna also appeared on “CNN This Morning,” where he told host Don Lemon that, “I felt an obligation to say what so many colleagues are saying in private, that the time has come for her to gracefully step down and have a dignified end to a very distinguished political career.”
Deciding when to retire is, psychologically speaking, one of the most important, and often difficult, decisions a person makes during their lifetime. For some, retiring can feel like a relief—a burden lifted. But for others, it can create a void, as well as a sense of grief or loss, compounded by the realization that the end of life may not be all that far off, at least relatively speaking.
Work is, for many, not just a necessary fact of life, but a great joy: More and more Americans report finding great satisfaction and even purpose in their work, according to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center. Our jobs, quite often, form much of our identities, and help us feel less anxiety and depression. Colleagues become friends; the workplace something like a second home.
The idea of giving all that up can feel almost unfathomable.
Though there are other reasons too, this is part of why more Americans are delaying retirement altogether. As we live longer, we’re working longer, too—the average retirement age is now 61, according to a 2022 Gallup poll, up from 57 in 1991. That same survey found that the percentage of adults aged 55 to 74 who are retired is declining.
The sense of loss that comes with leaving a career can be even greater for those who felt they made family or life sacrifices in the name of their job, or who feel they were forced to retire before they were ready. Retiring on your own terms is a key component to easing the transition.
That, of course, requires forethought and planning; a willingness to accept that you will, and you should, one day stop working, and a commitment to honoring the terms you’ve laid out for yourself in advance. Deciding when and how you’re going to retire, and making that decision at an early enough age to do so with a certain emotional pragmatism, will feel more empowering than taking a “wait and see” approach, where one decides to retire when one is basically forced to. No one likes to feel pushed out—not of a career or a home or a life.
But if you don’t make those important decisions for yourself in advance, then someone else may be forced to make them for you.
The guidelines you set are up to you—that’s entirely the point. Establishing a specific age may no longer make universal sense, since many people can work, and work very well, well into their 90s. But the reality is that the nature of many illnesses of aging is that there’s a fine line between one being capable of making their own decisions and not.
Perhaps retirement makes sense when facing a major illness that requires more time be put to self-care than to work. Or when it takes you 10 hours to do what it used to take you three. Decide how you want your retirement to look, and what you want to look like going into it, and then implement firm guidelines you agree to stick to, possibly in writing. Make a clear decision on when, and who, you trust to step in on your behalf and help you enforce those guidelines when the time comes.
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The way to retire with dignity is to decide to retire with dignity—and then do it.
Feinstein may be due to retire. She’s had a long and very illustrious career. Or she may not be; we don’t have enough information yet to know. Ideally, either way, it’s a decision she is able to make, of sound mind, and for herself.
But the conversation being sparked by Feinstein’s situation has resonance for the rest of us, and we’d do well to see it as an opportunity to think about these issues in our own lives. It’s important to recognize that there will be cases where others are able to see more clearly what is needed. There may come a time when we might not have the capacity to see that we’re no longer fit for a job or managing a house or driving—or we might not have the willingness to see such truths. And in those cases, having friends, family and colleagues step in isn’t just better for our community and the people our actions impact, but also for ourselves.