Everybody dreams of the day they can stop working, receive a Social Security check every month, and enjoy the freedom to do what they want to do when they want to. Still, while some seniors slide easily into retirement life, others find it difficult to adjust to so much time on their hands. This may be especially true for those who relied on a job for a sense of life purpose. Without the routine of getting up every morning to ensure a roof over their heads and food on the table, they may feel useless and directionless after they retire.
Understanding the Emotional Impact of Retirement: Factors Contributing to Mental Health Issues in Retirement
In addition to providing a sense of meaning and satisfaction, work may have offered daily opportunities to socialize, as well as long-term friendships. Retirement can represent the loss of these social connections and greater isolation.
Other issues in retirement that can have an emotional impact include:
- Losing a spouse soon after retiring
- Living alone
- Living distantly from family members
- Dealing with health issues
- Worrying about finances
- Being forced to retire due to medical problems or company downsizing
Just as the “stages of grief” paradigm can help people understand what they’re going through after the death of a loved one, the “four stages of retirement” can provide a framework for understanding and coping with the losses and stressors unique to this transition.
The Four Emotional Stages Of Retirement
Planning for Retirement
Most people don’t even start thinking about the financial aspects of retirement until they are in their 50s. You might start thinking about whether to remain in your home or move to a warmer state. The amount in your 401k becomes more important. You may consult the Social Security website to find out how much your monthly benefit will be if you retire at 62 or 65. At this stage, the idea of retiring in the near future makes it seem more real and tangible than what “old” people do.
It’s official! Your first monthly Social Security payment will soon be deposited in your bank account, and your co-workers are throwing you a retirement party complete with balloons, noisemakers, and champagne.
You may be looking forward to sleeping in later than 7 am or staying up past 9 pm. You’ll be able to visit your grandchildren more often, keep up with housework and yardwork, and take weekend vacations whenever you like. At the same time, though, your emotions may swing from uneasiness and a little anxiety over such a dramatic change in life to having profound thoughts about aging, life, and death in the middle of the night.
Settling In: The First Six Months of Retirement
Retirees often say that the first few weeks of retirement feel like they are on vacation. People with 30 or 40 years of seniority at their company are usually entitled to four or five weeks of vacation annually. You might even think briefly that you are on vacation and wonder what’s been going on at work while you’ve been away.
The emotional seeds of depression and being unsure of one’s self-worth may emerge during this time as retirees try to establish a routine that fills out the hours once occupied by working, socializing with co-workers, and feeling useful to themselves and their loved ones. There may also be the new stress of a spoouse or significant other who must now acclimate to having their loved one at home all day with nothing to occupy their time.
What Am I Supposed To Do Now?
Depression and anxiety are the most common types of mental health problems affecting older adults. The National Institutes of Health report that one-third of all U.S. retirees will develop signs of depression after retirement. An AARP study published in 2022 found that nearly 60 percent of retirees never considered the impact of their emotional and mental needs when the time came to retire. Consequently, they are not prepared for the pervasiveness of unsettling thoughts and emotions that accompany the partial loss of their identity and self-worth.
With so much extra time on their hands, retirees may worry needlessly about things they don’t really need to worry about, such as finances, an illness that forces them to be dependent on others, or being forgotten by family members and society, in general. Becoming more sedentary can also increase depression and anxiety. Physical activity has been proven to improve mood, outlook, and overall health. Retirees who abruptly go from moderate daily activity at work to little to no physical activity at home are at a higher risk for suffering depression and chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.
A retiree with depression may become irritable, have more difficulty concentrating, and self-isolate. Their appetite may significantly increase or decrease, leading to rapid weight gain or weight loss. They may develop insomnia or sleep 12 to 16 hours a day. They may say things like, “Well, I don’t know why you keep me around. I’m not good for anything anymore,” or, “I might as well sit here and watch TV for the rest of my life. Nothing else to do now.” They may refuse to go to family get-togethers or visit co-workers with whom they previously enjoyed close friendships.
Potential Positive Effects of Retirement: Strategies for Managing Mental Health Challenges of Retirement
When approached with creativity, flexibility, and healthy coping strategies, retirement can be the most rewarding and satisfying stage of life. These famous retirees are proof that life does not end at age 65:
- Benjamin Franklin was 70 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.
- Christopher Plummer won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar award when he was 82 years old.
- Grandma Moses started oil painting at the age of 76.
- William Baldwin walked across a canyon on a tightrope at age 82.
- P.G. Wodehouse was writing his 97th novel when he passed away at age 93.
- Michelangelo developed architectural blueprints for the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli at age 88.
If these retirees were alive today, they would probably offer the following tips for managing the mental and physical challenges of retirement:
- Find things you enjoy doing and do them. Once you get started on a new hobby, you will naturally find it hard to resist staying engaged with that hobby. The more hobbies and interests you accumulate, the better!
- It’s easier than ever to start your own online business. Popular online businesses for retirees involve selling homemade arts and crafts, selling home-baked food, doing artwork on commission, providing freelance blog and article content, and offering virtual assistance services. This is where you could use your previous work experience to launch a second career.
- Take classes at your local community college. Learn a new language, discover the joys of sculpting, or get an associate’s degree in a subject that has always intrigued you.
- Volunteer your time to help others less fortunate than you. Food banks, homeless shelters, animal shelters, and local senior agencies are always looking for friendly, caring volunteers to perform a variety of tasks.
Yes, the unique mental and emotional challenges of retirement can lead to depression, but retirement is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to discover a whole new you.