Retirement is typically pictured as a sort of idyllic existence. After decades of the daily grind, you finally put down the briefcase or the tool belt and pick up the golf clubs, tennis racket, and sun screen for years of carefree bliss. Well…that might be the situation for some. But if you’re a regular reader of the AgingOptions blog or a regular listener to Rajiv Nagaich on the radio – or hopefully both – you know that retirement just isn’t like that for the great majority. Certainly, it can be a wonderful and rewarding time of life, but no matter what your circumstances, retirement demands preparation. What’s more, much of that preparation is mental and emotional.
We like columnist Liz Weston, a regular writer for NerdWallet. In her most recent column which we first read earlier this year in the pages of the Seattle Times, Weston deals with the need to prepare emotionally for retirement. She offers a warning: for those who fail to do so, retirement can actually be hazardous to one’s health. Let’s reexamine this important topic.
Facing a Loss of Meaning and Purpose
Weston begins her article with the tragic story of Ohio resident Pamela Hixon, who had been looking forward to retirement with great excitement, but was not prepared for the toll it would take on her mental health. Soon after she quit, Weston writes, “Hixon spiraled into depression and anxiety. She sought help from counselors and her pastor, but it wasn’t enough. Six months after retiring, she took her own life.”
Hixon’s family members attribute her sad story to a perceived loss of purpose, significance, and meaning after her career ended. Her son, Tony Hixon, grappled with his mother’s story in his own life, processed it through writing, and emerged with a book to help others through the same season: Retirement Stepping Stones: Find Meaning, Live with Purpose, and Leave a Legacy.
It’s a hopeful ending to a sorrowful tale, but one that requires our careful attention.
Most Retirees are Content – but Not All
According to research, depression in retirement isn’t overly common for the majority. For many, retirement is generally a happier, more contented season of life. Brent Forester, president of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, says, encouragingly, “Older adults are less likely than younger people to experience major depression.”
But Forester does add, “[…] retirement often involves significant losses — of identity, purpose, structure and social contacts — that can trigger depression and other psychiatric illnesses.” In other words, “Getting depressed is not a normal part of aging. But one of the risk factors (for depression) is loss, and the loss of one’s professional identity, the loss of one’s job, is a big one.”
Disappearing Social Network, Growing Isolation
Forester notes that one of the major indicators that depression may develop after retirement is when people are too busy before they retire to make connections with other people, building a social and emotional framework to lean on during the retirement years. “Their social networks can disappear if they primarily made friends through work, or they move to a new community after retirement,” he says.
Being socially isolated and lonely is a huge risk factor for not only depression but other health problems as well. It can lead to unhealthy behaviors like increased substance abuse, or even spiraling negative thoughts about personal worth and meaning that can lead to a feeling of emptiness, without anyone else to bounce these ideas off of.
Tony Hixon, mindful of his mother’s story, is especially wary of this negative self-focus. “People also have time to think about bigger questions of purpose and meaning,” he says. “The age-old question of ‘why am I here?’ can get crowded out by being busy. Upon retirement, you do have time, and that question can sometimes plague a person.”
Retirement: A Transition, not a Destination
Worklife can be stressful, but Weston cautions, “People may be so desperate to get away from workplace stressors — a bad boss, a too-heavy workload, a rigid schedule — that they don’t fully consider the benefits they get from working.” This can lead people to be so eager to retire that they don’t think about what a healthy retirement should be on a day-to-day level, and what a life without work really means.
Boston psychologist and retirement coach Dorian Mintzer says, “Retirement is a transition, not a destination. It’s very helpful to think about ‘what are you retiring to?’” Part of that transition could include part-time work. “Reducing the hours you work can help alleviate burnout while allowing you more free time,” Mintzer says.
But regardless of whether you transition out of work slowly or quickly, Mintzer encourages deep consideration of what could offer you “a sense of connection, engagement, purpose, and meaning” after you retire, including hobbies, spending more time with family, or engaging in the community through volunteer work.
What fills you with joy? To help you figure out what fills you up or what you might want to learn, Mintzer poses: “What are some of the things you had to put on the back burner when you were younger?” Moreover, no matter what, don’t be afraid to reach out to a friend, family member, therapist, pastor, or other support system if you feel alone. “Get support from people,” Mintzer says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Finding the Help You Need
Weston is aware that many people don’t choose when to retire; it’s forced upon them for various reasons including job loss, health issues, or even the pandemic. “People who retire involuntarily are often less satisfied with their lives and suffer from worse mental health than those who retire voluntarily,” she says, and adds, “People experiencing financial strains — a common result of unexpected retirement — may be more vulnerable to depression and other mental health problems.”
But the signs and symptoms of mental health issues may show up differently in older adults, making it a bit harder to spot. Forester explains, “Rather than feeling sadness, for example, depressed older people may feel numb or anxious, have difficulty with memory or decisions, or suffer from otherwise unexplained physical complaints.”
Not sure where to begin with your mental health? Start by talking to your regular physician. “Depression and other mental health problems are medical conditions that typically can be treated with medication and therapy,” Weston says. “If you’re concerned about a loved one, encourage them to seek medical treatment and to follow their treatment plan. You may need to help them make the initial appointments or accompany them to treatment, since lack of motivation and energy are common symptoms of depression.”
Weston ends her article by including the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), which is available for anyone who needs help, information, or even just to talk.
She advises that creating a retirement plan—covering your social, financial, and emotional health—before retirement begins can work wonders for facing your retirement years with joy and excitement. And we would definitely agree! The more you can plan, the less likely you are to feel lost.
Mintzer’s quote at the end of the article sums up our thoughts well: “Just the act of planning can help you feel more in control and less anxious.”
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(originally reported at www.seattletimes.com)