Overall, retirees are a contented bunch, and many report being happier in retirement than they were when working. Older adults are less likely than younger people to experience major depression, says Brent Forester, president of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry.
Nonetheless, retirement often involves significant losses of identity, purpose, structure and social contacts that can trigger depression and other psychiatric illnesses, says Forester, who also heads the geriatric psychiatry division at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.
“Getting depressed is not a normal part of aging,” Forester says. “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.”
Retiring can pose challenges. Often, people are too busy working and raising families to develop interests that might offer structure and purpose in retirement. Their social networks can disappear if they primarily made friends through work or if they move to a new community after retirement.
“Substance abuse can cause problems for retirees, as well,” Forester says. Some people may use their unstructured time to drink or use drugs more often and aging brains are more sensitive to the adverse effects of these substances.
People may be so desperate to get away from workplace stressors—a bad boss, a too-heavy workload—that they don’t fully consider the benefits of working. Or they may view retirement as the finish line and don’t think about what their day-to-day lives might look like without work.
“Retirement is a transition, not a destination” says psychologist and retirement coach Dorian Mintzer of Boston. “It’s helpful to think about ‘what are you retiring to?’”
Consider how you’ll spend your days and what might offer “a sense of connection, engagement, purpose and meaning,” That might include hobbies, volunteering or time with family. Figure out what gives you joy as well as what new things you’d like to do or learn next.
Part-time work is another option, as reducing the hours you work can help alleviate burnout while allowing you more free time. Talking with a therapist, coach or sympathetic friend may ease the transition as well.
“Get support from people. Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Mintzer says. Many people are pushed into retirement earlier than they planned because of job loss, poor health or unexpected events. People experiencing financial strains from unexpected retirement may be more vulnerable to depression and other mental health problems. Depressed older people may feel anxious, have difficulty with memory or decisions, or suffer from unexplained physical complaints.
If you’re considering retirement, have a life plan as well as a financial plan. “Just the act of planning can help you feel more in control and less anxious,” she says.
Behavioral Health Systems is the parent company of Safety First. BHS offers Mental Health and Substance Abuse benefits to employers along with Employee Assistance Programs.