“He’ll be dead in three to five years,” was my response to news that Jim, a family friend, recently retired.  

My mom was appalled. “Robert Steven, why would you say such a thing?” she asked.

I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, or say it like I would bet on it, but as a former social worker, I knew something my mom didn’t: The door to retirement is just as likely to lead to an end as it is to a beginning.  

In this case, Jim worked his entire life in an auto plant. He spent his last 45 years devoted to one company, working at the same building with the same people. Outside of work, his relationship with his children had fractured. He had very few friendships, wasn’t in great shape and his passion seemed to be yelling at the TV and complaining about current political events.  

His old-school ways and beliefs were poised to drive the nail in his coffin. He had reached retirement through sheer determination, hard work and regular sacrifice—none of which he was prepared to apply to his everyday life in retirement. Jim was pushing on retirement’s door when he should have been pulling, and the harsh reality is, old ways do not open new doors. As pretty much I predicted, Jim passed away four years into his retirement following a contentious divorce and multiple health complications.   

A door is the perfect retirement symbol because it can help advisors describe a wide range of potential outcomes that clients face during this phase of life. Doors can provide security, especially when locks or chains are added. They can create an element of mystery, since no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. A back door is often a means of escape—it’s a form of rejection when someone closes the door on you, and discovering a new door often creates excitement and intrigue.

The challenge for both advisors and those clients knocking on retirement’s door is both figuring out what they can expect when they walk through it, and making sure it doesn’t close abruptly, as it did on Jim. Fortunately, there are a number of skills and strategies advisors can use to help clients unlock the door to a satisfying retirement.  

To start, advisors need to abandon looking at retirement as a closed door. Too many retirement planning conversations hinge on getting people to the doorstep, but very little to get the door open and clients successfully through it. Opening a door can raise a lot of questions. Therefore, once clients walk through, they need to know which paths to travel, and which to avoid.  

They need advice and direction on how to replace their work identity, fill their time and stay active and connected to others. Without this help, the chances increase that they’ll wind up focusing on the refrigerator door, and seeing social and health avenues closed off. No matter how much money clients have saved, or how big and beautiful their retirement door may appear, no one can guarantee how things are going to go once they’re through that doorway.  That makes it essential to use stories like Jim’s in newsletters, blogs and workshops so clients can peek through other’s windows for a glimpse of what’s really going on behind the door.
In addition to client stories, advisors can also add valuable perspective to retirement conversations with statements that help clients set realistic expectations about life in retirement. A few statements that I get a lot of mileage out of include:

“A successful retirement isn’t one without problems, but one in which you learn to manage and overcome them.”

“Running out of money pales in comparison to running out of family, friends, health and ultimately time.”

Both statements allow you to paint a picture of retirement that encourages clients to focus on the things beyond their investments and help them understand that retirement isn’t just this amazing time of life that magically unfolds without practice and a little effort.  

In fact, one of my favorite pieces of research is a statistic that shows 70 percent of pre-retirees think life in retirement will be better, but only 40 percent find that to be true. That’s a big disconnect, resulting from people making vague assumptions instead of concrete, realistic plans.  

Other closed-door beliefs advisors should abandon include:
•    The idea that clients have to have retirement all figured out before they make their move.
•    That a successful career will translate into a successful retirement.

Retirement can be one of life’s greatest adventures, but an open door doesn’t always offer a complete view of the future, and won’t necessarily be simple or easy to walk through. The retirement environment can change quickly, and no one can anticipate all the twists and turns it may take—two powerful concepts that advisors can use for building strong, long-term relationships. Essentially, you to say to a client, “You don’t have to have everything perfectly figured out to walk through the door because you’re not going alone. I am here to help you navigate the entire journey.”  

Similarly, it’s easy to unknowingly send a client toward retirement with rusty tools and keys that may do damage instead of unlocking the unknowns. Most of the stuff that made a client’s career a big success won’t automatically translate into a happy retirement home life. In Jim’s case, the hard-nosed, self-centered approach that helped him get through a 45-year career as a manager and compile ample savings didn’t get him far in retirement. Unfortunately, people often confuse who they are with what they do and, after the work is gone, when something appears broken, they turn to their trusty tools to fix it. In Jim’s case, trying to reopen relationship doors with his hammer and crowbar didn’t provide the end result he needed.

This whole idea of helping people replace their work identity and develop new tools to stay active and connected may seem elementary but, for a various reasons, a lot of clients struggle during their first few years of retirement. They’re stuck dealing with issues many advisors don’t think to ask about—but which are very real nonetheless. Some clients struggle because they feel guilty about no longer earning their pay. You’d think they would be ecstatic about receiving a nice pension check every month while they lounge around and do nothing—but they don’t. These retirees feel empty and out of sorts because they aren’t earning it like they did in the past.

Another retiree felt less capable because she no longer had a company name she could bandy about as a means of getting things done. It used to be when she said, “Barb from XYZ Company,” there was action. But that brand authority was now gone and she was just Barb.  

Any which way you slice it, work does create self worth, provide physical and mental exercise, and leads to friendships and a sense of belonging. If those aspects are not replaced, the "Do Not Disturb" sign goes on the door. Clients who don’t know what to do after they walk through that door can quickly fade into the shadows. It’s a retirement reality that bites just about everyone, no matter how big, important or powerful they once were.

Overall, new, existing and soon-to-be retirees don’t want to find a door-to-door salesperson on their doorstep trying to guide them with just products and services. They’re looking for trusted advice on the entire retirement spectrum, ensuring they get the most from their retirement experience.  

Today’s advisor needs to continually gain knowledge and develop the skills it takes to be a door opener. It’s the sure way to keep clients from walking through the wrong doors and, most importantly, position themselves as guides throughout retirement, not just during the time leading up to its doorstep.  

You never know—discussions and ideas like these just might open up new doors of opportunity for your practice. The only way to learn what’s on the other side is to walk through and find out. Are you ready to look inside?  

Robert Laura is President of SYNERGOS Financial Group, founder of RetirementProject.org, creator of the Retirement Wellness Report and DividendPaycheck.org, He can be reached at rl@robertlaura.com.