Mark Twain is said to have written,” Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Yet while we all struggle to remain young at heart, a certain percentage of us can fall into a debilitating depression following retirement.
Depression and other mental health challenges are hardly cut-and-dried issues for anyone; environmental, social, biological, and even environmental factors can affect any individual in unique ways. For many people, their outlook on life improves after they retire, freed from the duties and responsibilities of the working life. Others find it hard to recapture the meaning and identity they had in their job. Work is a source of self-identification, a sense of teamwork and purpose, and a source of validation that one has done a good job. How often have you been asked in your life, “So what do you do?” when what that person really means is “Who are you?” After retirement, many older adults have difficulty answering those kinds of queries, even for themselves.
The key to a successful retirement, experts say, is preparation. Any major change in life, be it marriage, children, moving, changing careers or dealing with sickness causes stress, which can be a primary factor in developing depression. Retirement is no less of a sea change for many retirees. While most people experience a normal period of transition, waylaid workers can become irritable, lose interest in their daily life, or seem to have lost their way.
“Any situation where the retiree has no choice but to retire places the person at risk,” says Dr. Philip R. Muskin, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. “I think the key is not what someone does but if the person defines him or herself by what the person does. Many people are what they do, and it defines them. A construction worker who retires following an injury, even if the injury leaves him able to lead a good life but unable to fix things, may feel he is no longer the man he once was. The physician who retires is just as vulnerable if she defines herself only as a physician and has no other interests. If all a person has done in life is work, then without work, what is there?”
A successful retirement plan allows a retiree to find something else with which to define him or herself. Here are some strategies and tactics for redefining what retirement means to you.
First, don’t rush it. It’s important to understand that the transition from the working world into retirement is a process. This transition won’t happen overnight, so it’s important to be kind and generous to yourself, and give yourself a break. Your emotions may be tumultuous during this time, so be present and mindful in the moment when you can.
Take an inventory. Consider the assets and supports that you turned to during other periods of change in your life. Take some notes that categorize your stresses, symptoms, triggers, warning signs, distress tolerance activities, goals and supports that indicate how you work through pressure, anxiety, and depression. A therapist or spiritual advisor may also be able to help with this process. By naming those factors that affect our identity, our relationships, our activities, and sense of purpose, you can be more mindful in transitioning into retirement.
Fill the time. Many retirees struggle during this transition because they simply don’t know what to do with themselves. Others feel a strong sense of guilt for no longer working. Consider taking up activities, such as gardening, playing games with others, writing or painting. Consider taking a class. But there’s another obvious activity that lies in the ether between working and retirement, which is…
Volunteer. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, a growing body of research indicates that volunteering provides not just social benefits, but individual health benefits as well. This research has established that people who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional abilities, and lower rates of depression than those who do not volunteer. As it turns out, the best way to take care of yourself in retirement is by taking care of others. Whether you connect with a local school to tutor kids or work with a volunteer center to apply your years of skills in a skilled volunteer opportunity, there are a wealth of nonprofit opportunities that could use your help. Online, you can visit Volunteer.gov or VolunteerMatch.org to search for volunteer opportunities in your area.
Develop a rhythm. After decades of working 9 to 5, it may feel comforting to have no particular place to go, but people are creatures of habit—how we spend our days is how we spend our lives, so a sudden lack of structure can be unsettling. Create a loose work plan for how you spend your days; one hour for exercise, leisure, errands, and social time. Whether you plan the whole day or only part of it, establishing this rhythm will lend you a sense of accomplishment.
Don’t go it alone. When you step away from the workforce, you lose the organic social networks that a regular job provides. This social support is a key element in establishing a better, more positive mindset. If you go to classes, meet-and-greets, travel programs or other impromptu social activities, you will meet other people who may be going through the same thing you are. For those who reach out to friends old and new, the benefits are far-ranging. Research suggests that socially active retirees earn many of the same well and wellness benefits as those who spend time volunteering.
If nothing is working, seek help. There’s nothing embarrassing about seeking to better oneself. Being inactive and feeling lethargic or depressed are signs you may need to seek advice from a mental health professional. These compassionate caregivers can help you to develop a more positive attitude about what tomorrow may bring.
Retirement is designed to be a time for you to enjoy the fruits of your years of labor. However, happiness can be elusive for retirees who haven’t planned properly to keep themselves occupied mentally, physically, and socially. Remember that it’s okay to take some time to relax before jumping into a new routine, and give yourself a break when easing into your golden years.
Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and it is not meant to be relied on as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult your physician before starting any exercise or dietary program or taking any other action respecting your health. In case of a medical emergency, call 911.
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