FOR Joy Rabinowitz, the decision to retire after 33 years as a social worker came gradually, almost reluctantly. ``I still loved the work,'' says Mrs. Rabinowitz, who was then the director of clinical services at Roxbury Children's Services. ``But my job was one of dealing with multi-problem families. I realized that the long-term nature and extent of their crises were such that I decided it was time to turn it over to younger and more energetic people.''
That was a year ago. Since then, Rabinowitz claims, she has had no regrets. ``I love it,'' she says of her newfound leisure. ``I'm thoroughly enjoying not having any structure, and not having the phone ring 24 hours a day. I know at some point I'm going to find I have to do more, but for the time being it's very nice.''
For Rabinowitz's lifelong friend, Sonia Abrams of Belmont, Mass., who retired last year as a caseworker at a Boston hospital after a 31-year career, the transition took slightly longer. Mrs. Abrams says, ``One of the things I found most difficult was giving up the structured life of work - waking up and wondering, Is it Tuesday or is it Thursday?''
Even so, she finds her new life satisfying. ``When I go back to the hospital to visit, people ask me what I'm doing now. I say, `I get up a little later. I take time to read the paper. I take courses.'''
Retirement was once an event most women experienced primarily as the wives of retired husbands. But with nearly 10 million women aged 50 or over now in the work force, the number of women like Rabinowitz and Abrams who must make retirement decisions and adjustments on their own behalf is growing steadily. And although men and women face common concerns in retirement - money, housing, activity, health - these issues often loom larger for women because of their longer life spans and lower retirement incomes.
Money is, in fact, ``the No. 1 issue for women,'' according to Ruth Harriet Jacobs, a visiting scholar at the Wellesley Center for Research on Women and the author of several books on aging. Because older women often started working later than men and held lower-paying jobs, they accrued fewer benefits. As a result, 80 percent of retirement-age women are ineligible for a pension. Almost 20 percent of women 65 and older live in poverty; 70 percent of the elderly poor are women.
Economic disparities aside, retirement experts disagree over who faces a greater adjustment, men or women.
``It used to be thought that retirement was easier for women, because they could always dabble around the house and be happy making curtains,'' says Ms. Jacobs. ``But research has demonstrated that if women have been committed to their work, retirement is just as traumatic for them as for men. Not only does a woman have to deal with her own losses, she must also deal with her husband. A man who is unhappy may be grumping around the house and taking it out on his wife.''
Other experts paint a different picture. ``Based on current research, women have an easier time,'' says John Miglioccio, special projects director with the Retirement Advisers division of Hearst Business Communications Inc., in New York. ``They have a broader social network than men. When a man leaves a job, he has to fall back on nonwork relationships he's developed, and very often he doesn't have a lot of them. Women tend to have more relationships with people outside work.''
The timing of women's departure often differs as well. Because most care-givers are female, women nearing retirement may find themselves caring for parents, their own as well as their husband's.
``It's a two-edged sword,'' says Mr. Miglioccio. ``In some cases women say, `I'd like to retire, but I need the money to help care for my mother or father.' In other cases they say, `I'd like to keep working, but I have to retire because of my care-giving responsibilities.' That's something women will have to face unless there are dramatic changes in elder care.''
Other women, he notes, face pressure from their husbands to retire. The average retirement age is 62. But wives are typically several years younger than their husbands, and a woman of 58 or 59 may be reluctant to leave her job, especially if she interrupted her career to raise a family. In addition, leaving early reduces her future benefits.
``So she may be in a position of having to make a choice between her own career and employment benefits and the desire of her husband for her to leave the work force,'' says Miglioccio.
Among women attending a recent all-day workshop on women's retirement issues at Boston University's Summer Institute on Gerontology, many expressed greater concern about their husband's retirement than their own.
``I still have a lot of get-up-and-go, and I still want interaction with other people,'' a retired elementary school teacher confessed. ``He's more content to do creative work alone.''
Ann Miller of North Hollywood, Calif., who for eight years has been conducting corporate pre-retirement planning seminars, often encounters another domestic problem: a lack of communication between husbands and wives.
Retiring employees, men and women, attend her seminars with their spouses. But during discussions, she says, couples often find ``very significant differences in what they want to do in their retirement.''
Mrs. Miller tells of one husband who had always dreamed of being a gentleman farmer. Even though the couple had been married for more than 30 years, the wife ``didn't have a clue that he had this in mind. She was an artist and wanted to stay in the city. They really had it out at the seminar.''
Other husbands and wives must forge a new compatibility in retirement. Jacobs observes many couples who have had what she calls ``pediatric marriages,'' which focused on child-rearing. ``That takes a lot of time. When the nest becomes empty and the husband and wife retire, they face each other as strangers. If people are lucky enough to be married in old age, they have to learn how to be friends.''
Perhaps the most surprising adjustment some women face involves guilt over their unaccustomed leisure. After years of putting the needs of families and employers first, they find it hard to focus on themselves. Mrs. Rabinowitz, for instance, admits she often hesitates to schedule time just to say, ``I'm going over to Bloomie's and go through the dress department.''
Jacobs offers an explanation: ``Women do tend to feel guilty, because they were brought up to do for others. But they also have to be care-givers for themselves. They have spent their lives caring for others.''
She suggests taking a ``Me Day'' from time to time, adding, ``It is not selfish to visualize being a magnificent, creative, happy woman fulfilling our own needs.''
Increasingly, retired women are doing just that. As Joan Kuriansky, executive director of the Older Women's League in Washington, D.C., observes, ``They're in good health, able to travel, and able to get involved in community activities they never did before. Many women who retire find new ways to bring skills they learned in their work to the community.''
In the process, they are creating what Jacobs calls ``wonderful new roles'' that enrich their own lives and serve as examples for women behind them.
``Younger women are afraid of growing old. We're one of the first generations of older women who are educated and have some resources. Young women will be eternally grateful if we are out there showing that old age can be enjoyable.''
Tomorrow: Women and the planning of satisfying retirements.