AFTER seven years' retirement 63-year-old Lai Shiu-ping still enjoys telling people how giving up work has left him little time for his wife. 'I actually saw more of my wife when I had a full-time job. Both of us now have voluntary work to do and this suits us fine. We are happy because we don't have to face each other all the time,' he says with a laugh. But is the former businessman joking or simply being honest about the situation many couples face as they get older? According to social workers and academics, 'getting stuck' with one's spouse day in and day out is a prospect which many retired couples fear. There is little formal research on what happens to families after retirement in Hong Kong but experts recognise that it is a period when couples face great tension and new pressures through being together all the time. Meera Chandran, a counsellor and administration officer at the Marriage and Personal Counselling Service, says retired couples seldom seek counselling but the strain is there. She says: 'How are retired people going to spend 24 hours a day in each other's company? Also, the man may feel that he is no longer important and this can be difficult for him to come to terms with.' Mr Lai, a member of the Retired Persons' Association run by St James' Settlement, a non-government organisation providing social services, is among the increasing number of retirees in the territory. But unlike many, he had planned for the event. 'I already knew what I was going to do a year before I retired. I decided that I was going to do voluntary work in my spare time,' he says. Koo Kam-mui, a 70-year-old housewife, still remembers the days when her husband had nothing to do after his retirement. 'My husband was very restless in the house for two years. He was very unhappy. I had to go to parks and walk the streets with my husband to kill time,' she says. 'I didn't have any problem because I like to use my time learning new skills, such as reading. Eventually, I had to tell him to stop taking me out because my legs became too sore after those long walks. 'Then I asked him to go to St James' Settlement where he could make himself useful. He is very happy now.' Ms Koo's story is one with a cheerful ending. But not all couples can resolve their problems and according to overseas research, some end up getting a divorce. Dr Iris Chi, lecturer in the department of social work and social administration at Hong Kong University, says many retired people, especially older retirees, do not know how to deal with the new pressures placed on their marriage. 'I know one case where the old man walked the streets all day because he didn't want to face his wife back home,' she says. 'Overseas research shows that Westerners are happier to retire than Hong Kong Chinese.' Dr Chi adds that the strain of retirement may be connected to the ageing process and gender role reversal. 'Gerontologists have found that men become more feminine as they grow older. You probably find that the father, who used to possess this macho image, will become the 'nice old man',' she says. 'The wife, when she gets older, becomes more dominant. But this is a normal development; there's nothing negative about it.' Kay Lai, supervisor of St James' Settlement (Adult Services Division) says the number of retirees rises due to the territory's ageing population and also a change in people's attitude towards retirement. 'Twenty to 30 years ago, people simply worked until they died. It was even regarded as an insult to ask people, especially businessmen, to retire. But society has changed since then,' she says. Another worry for people from the older generation was whether they would have the financial means to survive if they retired. Many thus did not consider retirement until forced to stop work. NOW, Ms Lai says, society in general is more affluent and people feel their families can more readily support them in retirement. 'We have many cases where children have emigrated and have enough money to support their parents. Money is no longer a major factor in people postponing retirement.' According to Ms Lai there are several stages to retirement - the 'honeymoon' period, reality, acceptance and old age. 'During the honeymoon period, the couple spends their free time travelling and enjoying their new-found freedom,' she says. 'Once they've been to all the places they want to visit, reality sets in and they realise they have to face each other all day long. Since they have so much time at their disposal, they begin to nitpick . . . even a cup misplaced can cause an argument.' Hong Kong University visiting professor Rachelle Dorfman, from the department of social work at the University of California Los Angeles says social background plays a part in how American couples react to stopping work. 'Coming to terms with retirement is more difficult for professional couples. Often, the blue collars are happy to be free from hard labour while professionals see it as a loss of status, ' she says. The fact that people age differently can also lead to conflicts between retired couples, Professor Dorfman says. When one remains vital and the other becomes sick and confused, it puts a strain on the relationship. When one needs to be taken care of, she says, this deprives the other of their freedom. 'Their marriage will become an unequal relationship. In my experience and in counselling couples, there is always resentment.' Both Ms Lai and Professor Dorfman agree that marriages break down after retirement because some couples have actually been incompatible for many years but never taken the time to tackle their differences. 'They were distracted by children and their jobs and didn't work out their problems. After retirement, they have to face each other every day,' Professor Dorfman says. 'I do think people look at retirement with great joy and expectation but it doesn't work out that way. Retirement is often a great disappointment.' Ms Lai, who has been a social worker for 20 years, believes people should prepare for retirement, and her organisation runs seminars, talks and counsels people so that they understand what it means to retire. In Hong Kong the majority of older people spend time in public parks or go to old people's homes or centres to take part in activities and many couples, she says, eventually get used to the new arrangement. Meanwhile, the Government could do more in terms of family life education, Dr Chi says. 'At the moment, it tells you how to raise children and maintain a marriage. But old people have been left untouched. It's important because a caring relationship is important,' she says. 'With retired people there are no facilities to support them. In the West, it appears that retirement is a time for people to really enjoy themselves. But here, it is a period when you're waiting to die.'