John Snuggs always imagined he’d spend his first year of retirement in Florida, walking along the sandy beach in Fort Lauderdale and admiring millionaires’ homes. Then, he’d find a little bar at happy hour, drink a locally brewed IPA and shoot the breeze with other retirees.

Instead, Snuggs is at home in Ottawa, watching Better Call Saul, Animal Planet and an endless stream of movies.

“We’ve gone through all the good ones, so now we’re kind of watching dogs,” said Snuggs, who retired last October after a long career as a professional and volunteer firefighter.

A travel agency with a sign in the window that reads "space for sublease".
Common retirement plans like travelling and visiting family have been postponed because of the pandemic. [Photo © Ariel Harker]

Retirement isn’t quite what Snuggs imagined.

And he’s not alone. 

In a year of missing milestones, retirement is another pandemic casualty. No farewell parties to say goodbye to coworkers. No long-dreamt of vacations. No visiting family or friends. Even long-postponed home improvement projects are being hampered by pandemic shortages in hardware stores.

While some near the end of their careers are delaying retirement, others are fast-tracking it because they dislike working from home or the learning curve of new technology.

The pandemic has transformed retirement – an already jarring transition – and caused psychological, financial and health impacts. It’s also influencing planning for future retirees.

Ottawa is home to a growing population of retirees. More than 144,000 people age 65 or older live in the city, making up 15 per cent of the population, according to Statistics Canada. Seniors form one of the fastest growing age groups, up from 12 per cent of the population a decade ago.

Compounded with COVID-19 anxieties, retirement’s psychological impact has been most challenging for Snuggs. He misses the uniquely close-knit camaraderie of firefighters who live, eat and face difficult situations together.

After 24 years as a professional firefighter and eight years volunteering before that, Snuggs retired from Ottawa Fire Services this past Oct. 31. Retirement at age 60 is mandated for Ontario firefighters by the Fire Protection and Prevention Act.

“I’m a very individual person when I’m not at work,” he said.

Retirees’ social lives suffering

For many people, retirement is the first time they lack a “provided social network,” like classmates at school or work colleagues, said Sarah Bercier, a retirement consultant who specializes in lifestyle and psychological concerns.

“Isolation is the hidden pandemic,” she said.

The pandemic is a chance for people to gauge their retirement plans, Bercier said. “You know how they say, ‘get a dog before you have a baby’?”

It’s an opportunity for pre-retirees to assess how much activity and socialization they need. Being alone may seem fine, but Bercier says social connectedness is important.

“Sometimes we enjoy things that aren’t healthy for us,” she said. “You can eat a bag of chocolate chip cookies and it’s not necessarily good for you.”

“Isolation is the hidden pandemic.”

– Sarah Bercier, retirement consultant

Demand for psychological support has spiked during the pandemic, including among retirees, according to Dr. Caroline Ostiguy, a psychologist at Gilmour Psychological Services in Ottawa. Some weeks, the practice has had 200 individual requests for service, up from an average of 60.

Isolation and loneliness are linked to increased heart attacks, strokes, depression, anxiety and dementia, Ostiguy said.

“Experiencing pleasure can have a huge impact on keeping some of the negative consequences of social isolation and loneliness at bay,” she said.

That could mean some form of social engagement (even virtual), cooking, colouring, listening to music, or just going for a walk.

Keeping a routine with some level of predictability and control is vital, Ostiguy said. There’s no more water cooler conversation; it’s up to the individual to organize their own social activity.

There are places for lonely Ottawa retirees to turn to for support, even if the pandemic has made in-person activities impossible, Bercier said. These include The Good Companions’ telephone program, called Seniors’ Centre Without Walls, or the chat service, A Friendly Voice , run by Rural Ottawa South Support Services. The Council on Aging of Ottawa also delivers some programming over the phone.

Volunteering is another good way to transition to retired life, stay connected and remain engaged, said Donna Hansen, the director of human resources and volunteers at the National Association of Federal Retirees.

However, volunteering has been difficult during the pandemic and retirees are struggling with resiliency, she said. The retiree association is using virtual communication platforms to support its members and volunteers.

“We’ve embraced Zoom with a passion, and I know we’re not the only ones,” said Hansen.

Reconnecting with loved ones

While pandemic quarantines have given retirees the chance to mull over personal fulfilment, it’s also meant more time with partners and families and sometimes that tests relationships, Bercier said.

Snuggs has spent many hours with his significant other at home.

“That’s been great – almost all the time. But when you’re together that much, it can get a little much,” he said.

For some, the pandemic has created more family time.

“It allowed me to kind of reconnect,” said Dean Taylor.

After 36 years as an Ottawa firefighter, he retired on March 1, 2020 – just before the pandemic.

If not for the pandemic, Taylor, 59, said he’d constantly be off doing his own thing while his wife and daughter were busy. Instead, they’re together, enjoying board games, cards, and movie night.

Taylor planned to do side jobs for pocket change – but that hasn’t happened, because of job cancellations and the risk to elderly family members. He said he’s nervous about his two children – both in university – and their ability to find work this summer. He’s being careful how he spends his money, knowing his kids may need help.

“I’m just so fortunate that I have a pension, and that it’s a monthly cheque,” he said.

Pandemic financial planning

Forty per cent of Canadians were worried about the pandemic’s impact on their savings and retirement plan, suggested a CIBC poll last October.

A woman wearing a brown suit smiles and stands in front of a grey background.
The pandemic could have long-lasting effects on people’s retirement planning, says Ayana Forward, a local financial planner and founder of Retirement in View. [Photo courtesy Ayana Forward]

Further, 26 per cent of Canadians age 35 to 55 have been unable to contribute to their retirement savings since the pandemic started.

That statistic reflects unexpected job losses and lower hours, said Ayana Forward, a financial planner and founder of Retirement in View.

Retirement savings might have taken the backseat for those who were laid off because of COVID-19. Some future retirees chose to contribute to a Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) instead of a Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP), Forward said. If people expect to be in a higher tax bracket in 2021 after getting their job back, it could make sense to leave their RRSP contribution room for next year.

Seniors have had access to some pandemic relief programs. The provincial government doubled Guaranteed Annual Income System payments  for six months. The federal government reduced the minimum required withdrawal for Registered Retirement Income Funds and offered one-time payments to seniors eligible for the Old Age Security pension or the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

“We tend to be on the lucky side in Ottawa,” said Forward.

The city is full of government and public sector employees who have pensions and aren’t as susceptible to market volatility.

It also means many Ottawans can retire at 60 or 65, she said.

The average retirement age for public sector employees in 2020 was 62.4 years old, according to Statistics Canada. For private sector employees, that age rose to 64.7. Self-employed Canadians retired the latest, at 68 years old.

Some clients have retired early to avoid working from home, said Forward, but others have postponed retirement while COVID-19 suspends celebratory plans.

Lower expenses, more savings

This year, many clients had lower expenses for travel and dining out, leading to more savings for retirement, said Forward.

That’s made retirement budget planning especially difficult, she said, because clients couldn’t review expenses to test drive their budget.

“It’s kind of a throwaway year,” said Forward, “because the most current and previous year is just not reflective of normal spending.”

One way for seniors to free up cash is to sell their home and downsize.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of a manageable home because people haven’t been comfortable inviting cleaning or repair crews inside, said Kate Clark, a local real estate salesperson who specializes in serving seniors.

But even though it’s a seller’s market, some retirees have put moving plans on hold, Clark said. They can’t have people coming in their home to view the property.

“We know that this virus attacks the older population harder than anyone else,” she said.

Health concerns have been a pressing consideration during pandemic retirement planning, said Forward. Estate planning, end-of-life wishes, and emergency health decisions have all come to the forefront – and family members should know your wishes.

“You never know when something could happen,” said Forward. “You’re fine one day, the next week you’re in the hospital with COVID.”

Staying active a challenge

Retirees have had to find creative ways to stay healthy, like walking in their apartment parking garages, said Bercier.

“Getting outdoors in the winter, regardless of a pandemic, is a huge issue,” Bercier said.

Options like AIM Fitness or Dancing with Parkinson’s offer online classes tailored to older adults. Find more choices by Googling “exercise class for over 50” and picking your language, she said.

With gyms closed throughout the pandemic, Snuggs – an exercise lover – stayed active by shoveling out fire hydrants for two hours a day, four days a week. He also tries to walk 10,000 steps a day.

For new retirees like himself, his advice is to stay active and not get hung up on the negativity in news and social media.

“Find some things that give you happiness, that enhance your positive outlook on life because with all that’s going on with this pandemic, it can be pretty easy to get into a little negative cocoon,” he said.

As for his revised retirement goals? They’re pretty simple: “In one year, I want to be in Florida. And in 10 years, I’d like to still be alive.”