Written by Sam van Kalkeren, MSN, RN, CDP
Did you know that retirement is ranked 10th on the list of life’s most stressful events? It is no wonder why retirement is ranked so high. You’ve worked hard for many years, dedicating most of your life to your career. A career that, for many, defines you, gives you purpose and a sense of self-worth, provides stability and cognitive stimulation, and satisfies your need for social interactions. Transitioning away from that can be disorienting and leaves many feeling lost and depressed.
Prevalence of depression in retirement
Respectfully, retirement is a significant life transition consisting of changes in psychological, behavioral, and social domains. As a result, retirement is associated with multiple risk factors that can lead to the development of depression in older adults. Retired older adults are more likely to experience depression than working older adults, and those with depression typically have other medical problems that can further complicate proper diagnosis and treatment.
According to the 2019 Global Burden of Disease, 13.8% of adults over 60 experience any mental illness. One Institute of Economic Affairs study showed that retirement increases the risk of clinical depression by 40%. While other studies do not show such strong results, depression linked to retirement needs to be discussed.
How can retirement lead to depression?
Societal norms on retirement have helped influence our expectations about when and how to retire and what is expected of retirees. The truth is that many people retire earlier than anticipated. Reasons for this include health issues, being forced to retire early, or becoming a caregiver. These reasons are out of the person’s control, and early retirement in these situations is associated with poorer adjustment, reduced life satisfaction, and a higher risk for depression.
Risk factors of depression in retirement
Even if your last day on the job goes as planned, you can still experience depression. Other risk factors that increase the risk of depression include the loss of job-related identity, social isolation, financial strain, lack of structure, and changes in health-related behaviors such as increased alcohol consumption. Often, older adults have higher alcohol consumption, less physical activity, poor dietary habits, and higher rates of smoking when they retire compared to when they are working. Retired older adults are also at risk for cognitive decline due to a lack of engagement in cognitively challenging and problem-solving activities. Finally, health complications that are more common in older adults can lead to depression or vice versa. Depression itself is related to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Losing Your Job-Related Identity
For some, their sense of identity and self-worth is connected to their work identity. The change in employment status can lead to a loss of self-identity and feelings of not contributing to society, ultimately impacting one’s self-worth.
Social isolation and loneliness can increase the risk of depression and are linked with poor health. Evidence shows that social isolation and loneliness can lead to premature death.
Most likely, you have saved some money for retirement, but economic challenges facing older adults include high healthcare costs, retirement preparedness, and possible financial exploitation. Retirees lose their wages and access to employer benefits. One survey found that close to half of older adults in the United States under the Medicare eligibility age were unlikely to be able to afford health insurance coverage in retirement.
Lack of Structure
The word boring frequently recurred in one study by The British Psychological Society about retirement. To go from a highly structured workweek routine to no work routine at all may be fun at first, but it can quickly lead to feelings of boredom, a lack of purpose, and listlessness.
Behavioral Health Problems
Retirement can lead to positive health-related behaviors by means of learning a new sport, having more time to exercise, or learning to cook healthy foods. But instead of using the additional time productively, some older adults turn to alcohol. Data from the United States shows that the rates of alcohol abuse and dependence among individuals over 65 increased almost ten-fold in women and four-fold in men over the last decade.
Lack of Cognitive Stimulation
Studies show that some individuals who fail to replace mentally stimulating work activities once they retire are at risk of cognitive decline. This is consistent with cognitive aging theories and the use-it-or-lose-it hypothesis. It is important to mention that cognitive decline is not normal in aging.
How can you prevent and treat retirement-related depression?
Knowing the risk factors and the changes retirement brings can better prepare you for life after work through prevention and intervention efforts. Here are a few tips to help you navigate retirement and reduce the risk of depression associated with this significant life transition.
Become a Mentor
Mentoring can be extremely rewarding for you and the person you are paired with. Mentoring is one way to share your expertise and many of the lessons you have learned. Mentoring can also help reduce feelings of loneliness and promote self-worth.
Volunteering can help ward off feelings of isolation, provide structure, and give purpose to one’s life. Volunteering is also a way to make new friends with similar interests.
Take a Class
Signing up for a class is a great way to meet new people, create a routine, and stay cognitively stimulated. If you are more remote and do not have easy access to in-person learning, try virtual learning.
Being retired means you can work, not that you must. Retirement is an excellent opportunity to find a new area of interest. This provides some extra cash flow and social interactions and can be fulfilling.
Discover a New Hobby
Now is the time to learn the new language you always wanted to learn or take that photography class. Listen to your inner voice and explore your interests.
It is always possible to get your body moving. Joining a gym can connect you with others while improving your health. If you don’t like the gym, there are plenty of outdoor activities such as walking, biking, kayaking, and gardening.
Seek Mental Health Support
Whether you are struggling or not, it is okay to ask for help. Retirement presents many challenges that take work to navigate on your own. Having someone to consult with or talk to for mental health support can help provide guidance and reassurance.
Signs of depression in retirement
If you are struggling, it is essential to reach out for help. Some signs to be aware of include the following:
• Feeling sad, hopeless, or empty
• Irritability and feelings of anger
• Appetite changes
• Feelings of tiredness
• Difficulty concentrating
• Frequent crying spells
• Loss of pleasure in activities
• Thoughts of suicide
While many things may cause depression, it is essential to consult your doctor. Mental health professionals are available to help. You do not have to go through retirement depressed or alone.
Get help for depression in retirement today
If you or someone you care about is struggling with mental health concerns or behavioral health issues or needs professional guidance, we’re here to help. Contact us today to find out how our compassionate team of care coordination experts can help you toward a happier and healthier retirement.
Dang, L., Ananthasubramaniam, A., & Mezuk, B. (2022). Spotlight on the challenges of depression following retirement and opportunities for interventions. Clinical Interventions in Aging, 17:, 1037-1056. https://doi.org/10.2147/CIA.S336301
Hamm, J., Heckhausen, J., Shane, J., & Lachman, M. (2020). Risk of cognitive declines with retirement: Who declines and why? Psychology and Aging, 35(3), 449-457. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/pag0000453
Road Scholar (n.d.). How to avoid loneliness and isolation as a senior in retirement. Retrieved from https://www.roadscholar.org/c/senior-loneliness/
Rosenthal, D., & Moore, S. (2018, October 30). Retirement, health and wellbeing. The British Psychological Society. Retrieved from https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/retirement-health-and-wellbeing