To Maintain Your Mental Health in Retirement, Consider These Eight Factors to Help Ease the Transition
Here at AgingOptions we like to focus in on all aspects of health in your retirement years, not just “financial health” and physical well-being. Maintaining your mental and emotional health as you age can be every bit as important as making sure your finances are in order, because retirement can be an extremely difficult season for people who enter it unprepared for the reality of time without work.
In this recent Psychology Today article , psychiatrist Claire Wilcox, MD, brings us a handful of important considerations we all should take into account before we make the transition from “career person” to “retired person.” When these factors are considered carefully, you can enter this new season as smoothly—and emotionally healthy—as possible.
Anticipate Some Retirement Anxieties
“A good friend of mine recently retired at the age of 58,” Wilcox writes in Psychology Today. “The first three months of the transition were significantly more difficult than he expected, as he watched the stock market fall and worried about how he was going to fill his days.” Wilcox’s friend worried that he might have retired too early as boredom set in, and to make matters worse, he found himself too stressed about gas prices to feel comfortable driving anywhere.
“Retirement is a significant life change, and the transition can be hard for many,” Wilcox explains. “Although retirement does not cause depression overall, common struggles include decision paralysis, identity disruption, loneliness, and a sense of loss of purpose.”
Here are eight factors that Wilcox believes might influence how smoothly the transition to retirement will go for you. The order of importance of each of these depends on your circumstances, but taken as a whole these considerations offer a good emotional road map to guide you on the retirement journey.
Consideration #1: Financial Health
Wilcox invites us to be honest about how we feel when we think about money in retirement. Does not having an income worry or scare you? Why? And how valid do you think that fear truly is?
“People say that time is more valuable than money,” Wilcox writes. “But if you don’t have enough money to meet basic needs or to pay for things that give you joy, like travel or eating out, then money might win. Consider meeting with a financial advisor before taking the leap, and ask them about your fears and to what degree they are valid. For those fears that are not reality-based, consider working with a therapist to try to learn coping skills before leaving your job.”
(An important side note: As you choose a financial advisor, we strongly encourage you to find a planner who will prepare a financial dashboard for you. There’s no better tool we know of to help give you true financial peace of mind and keep financial anxieties under control. Contact us at AgingOptions and we’ll gladly explain the concept and provide a professional referral.)
Consideration #2: Job Satisfaction
As you approach retirement, think carefully about your job. Do you like it? Does it give you a sense of joy or fulfillment? Or does it stress you out and make you dread your day?
“Sometimes staying in a job you don’t like temporarily to wait out a terrible boss or to get that year-end bonus makes sense,” Wilcox explains in her article. “But staying in a job you hate for years does not. Life’s too short. If you’ve got the finances and you don’t get satisfaction from your current work, retiring early may be one way to improve your well-being.”
On the other hand, for those who like what they do, regular AgingOptions readers and radio listeners will note that Wilcox offers advice that will sound quite familiar, and something we have discussed before: “If you do enjoy your work, though, and it continues to provide you stimulation and a sense of purpose without detracting from your personal life, it might be better to keep going. Or at least consider partial retirement instead of retiring completely.”
The reason is simple, Wilcox adds. “Studies show that working part-time, whether in your same job or a different one, is good for your brain, and it can keep you socially connected and give you a sense of meaning while allowing you more time to play.”
Consideration #3: Social Life
This can be a tough issue to confront honestly, but think carefully: how robust is your social network? Are your connections with others tied exclusively to your workplace? Do you need to cultivate stronger friendships outside of that work environment before you leave it?
“Social isolation is a major contributor to depression and anxiety in retirees,” Wilcox warns. “Individuals vary in their needs for socialization (introverts need less stimulation than extroverts), but we all need connection for mental health. Isolation and lack of community may breed addiction and despair. Studies show that having a partner, being involved in a community, and having friends predict a higher sense of well-being in retirement.”
Consideration #4: Your Unique Sources of Joy
When you think about retirement, what do you imagine filling your days with? Have you thought about the things that bring you real joy and satisfaction, and whether you’re planning a retirement that features those things heavily enough?
“The more you experience joy,” Wilcox writes in Psychology Today, “the more you will positively impact those around you; it’s not selfish to make choices for your happiness, assuming you are not hurting yourself or someone else by engaging in the activities that give it to you. Seeking novel experiences, such as traveling, engaging in creative projects, physical activity and outdoor time, and pet ownership are a few examples of healthy ways people find joy in retirement.”
Consideration #5: A Sense of Purpose
We’ve discussed this point many times on AgingOptions, because it’s an essential retirement concept that is too easily overlooked. Sometimes we can get so caught up in what we do as a job that we forget how to find meaning in anything else. Where does your sense of meaning come from? Do you have interests and goals outside of your career?
Wilcox writes, “Finding a sense of meaning again after leaving a long-standing career can be difficult, but doing so reduces feelings of depression. Studies have found that people who have life goals that don’t end with the cessation of their career have a smoother transition to retirement. A sense of purpose and meaning can be cultivated through social connections, volunteering, expressing gratitude, reflecting on personal relationships, and engaging in outdoor group activities. Reflecting on your personal values and finding ways to be more aligned with them is often helpful, which some evidence-based therapies for depression, such as acceptance and commitment therapy, are especially good at.”
Consideration #6: Physical Activity and the Outdoors
When you retire, are you planning to spend more time outside? And more importantly, do you already have a habit of exercise, or is that something you’ll have to create from scratch? And here’s a bonus question: if injuries and illnesses should get in the way of your physical activity, do you have alternatives planned?
“Studies show that engaging in physical activity, especially in the outdoors, leads to better mental health across the lifespan,” Wilcox explains. “In retirees or elders, in particular, outdoor group activity and physical exercise were associated with greater well-being, higher vitality, more meaning in life, and reduced depression.” Of course, your level of activity will vary with age and underlying health conditions.
Consideration #7: Close Family Relationships
Family is a crucial element of your retirement season. If you’re married, is your spouse ready for you to retire? Are you ready for possible changes in your family dynamic? Have you built up a “toolkit” consisting of ways to help you communicate effectively and handle challenges well?
“People with supportive, emotionally validating families do better during the transition to retirement than those who don’t have that support,” Wilcox writes. “Talking the decision over with those close to you and considering the potential impacts of this big decision on everyone is an essential part of the decision-making process.”
Consideration #8: Cognitive Function
“Use it or lose it” is a common warning, and sometimes is used to describe the loss of mental capacity some people experience when they’re no longer working. Is cognitive decline something that worries you?
Wilcox gives us this encouraging thought: “Interestingly, when pooled together, studies show that, on the whole, retirement does not lead to faster deterioration in global cognition, although it can slightly reduce memory. But there is individual variability. Specifically, how complex your job is prior to retirement, and whether you choose to work part-time after retirement, and where, can impact what happens to your cognitive function post-retirement. Whereas retirement from a high-complexity job does not lead to cognitive decline, retirement from a lower-complexity job might.”
One solution is to keep working, but with a change of scenery. “Working part-time with a new employer after retirement may be better for your cognition than working part-time with a previous one,” says Wilcox.
There’s No Perfect Time to Retire
We thought it best to conclude with Wilcox’s own conclusion: “In the end, there is no right decision or perfect time for retirement,” she writes. “And we are all different in our needs and resources. No matter what you decide, remember, too, that you can always change your mind down the road. However, making these decisions with eyes open and with consideration, and in a measured way, will serve you well, regardless.”
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(originally reported at www.psychologytoday.com)