AFTER 25 years as a high school English teacher in Lowell, Mass., Mary Collins is beginning to think about the time, still several years away, when she grades her last set of exams, bids farewell to students and colleagues, and goes home to the simpler routines of retirement. As she considers that transition, Miss Collins finds herself wondering: ``What will it be like not having bells to answer? What will it be like not getting up early on a winter's morn? What do I want? What do I need?''
That kind of thoughtful anticipation comes as music - like caroling bells - to the ears of retirement planners, who find many older workers inadequately prepared for their later years. Although both men and women are guilty, Dorothy Clarke, project coordinator of Pre-Retirement Education Planning for Mid-Life Women (PREP) at Long Island University in Stonybrook, N.Y., encounters a particular anxiety among women attending her pre-retirement workshops.
``A recurring theme is that they have not planned for retirement,'' Ms. Clarke says. ``Men have had more opportunities to plan. And they've been a little more financially educated than women.''
So great is the need for long-range planning, in fact, that earlier this year the United States Department of Health and Human Services launched PREP, the first federally funded program of its kind to teach women how to prepare for retirement. Through workshops, seminars, and booklets, midlife women can consider finances, health, as well as social and emotional issues.
Financial security is only one part of a satisfying retirement. ``Most people think, `If I have enough money, I'll be fine,''' says Ann Miller of North Hollywood, Calif., chairwoman of the Women's Initiative advisory committee of the American Association of Retired Persons.
``It's not true. There's more to it than financial planning. There's also emotional, physical, and spiritual planning. You have to have all those things.''
This multifaceted approach becomes increasingly important as early retirement gains in popularity. ``We will live longer as an old retired person than we lived as a youth,'' says Ruth Harriet Jacobs of Wellesley, Mass., the author of several books on aging.
``We can go from age 65 to 85 or 90. It's a very long span.''
Sleeping and eating, she notes, will take 70 hours a week. ``You have 98 hours to fill. It's a choice between being passive - letting the environment play on you - and being active, planning what you will do.
``We don't have unlimited time,'' she continues. ``We have a good long time after we retire, but it's important to start doing things. There are people who have always wanted to paint and are not painting. There are people who have always wanted to write and are not writing. Well, when are you going to take it off the shelf and do it?''
Miller puts it another way. ``Women today have much more available to them, including greater independence and higher self-esteem, because of options such as part-time work and volunteerism. There's so much out there that women can take advantage of. They've been programmed to be productive, and they will go for it.''
She pauses, then adds emphatically, ``You must be productive in your retirement.''
Some retirees balk at cheerful suggestions to ``Get a hobby'' and ``Be a volunteer,'' arguing that these can be simplistic, even demeaning non-solutions. Others seize the opportunity to find new outlets for skills. Collins, for instance, wants to volunteer to teach reading in Lowell, which has a large immigrant population.
``Challenges are important,'' Jacobs insists. Adds Celia Lyons, a retired psychotherapist in Medford, Mass., ``Intellectual stimulation, the need to be needed or useful, persists.''
Jacobs also encourages both women and men to expand their sense of family.
``You may not have grandchildren, but you can be a foster grandparent. You might find a child whose parents both work and who needs a friendly older person in his life.''
For married couples, retirement counselors emphasize that not all activities need to be undertaken as Siamese twins.
``Some couples can do everything together,'' Jacobs observes. ``Others need time to be alone, then come back refreshed.'' When she teaches at Elderhostel programs, she adds, she is ``amazed'' at the number of wives who attend alone.
For singles, that kind of independence sometimes troubles well-meaning but overprotective relatives and friends. Jacobs recalls the opposition she faced when she announced her plans to drive alone from Boston to a writers' colony in Taos, N.M.
``My kids said, `Mom, fly.' My age peers said, `You're not really going to drive?' One suggested I buy one of those inflatable dummies, so it would look like a man in the passenger seat. People tried to dissuade me. But I had a wonderful time.''
This spirited approach to retirement is becoming increasingly common as older women envision new possibilities beyond the confines of a 9-to-5 routine.
Freda Garbose of Holden, Mass., who teaches English as a second language at a community college, expects to retire in a year. She is drawing up a list of hopes and plans for her post-career years.
``I want to be intellectually active and a role model for my children,'' Mrs. Garbose says. ``I want to renegotiate my marriage. And I want to be happy, laughing, and smiling.
``I'm dealing with phone calls from my widowed mother in Florida all the time, complaining. I don't want to be like that.
``I want to see opportunities ahead of me, not my life behind me.''