The Links Between Retirement And Depression

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Retirement represents a major lifestyle change for many in the older adult population. Transitioning from decades of having a routine working schedule to not working at all can result in adjustments to virtually all areas of life, including relationships, hobbies, and aspirations. Retirement has the potential to lead a person to develop depression, since major life changes and effects on mental health are closely linked in many cases. Here, we’ll talk about why this can happen, how to reduce your risk of depression and promote mental health overall, and how to seek help if you’re experiencing signs of a mental illness.

Depression can affect anyone

What is depression? 

Depression is a mental health disorder characterized by persistent low mood and loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, which can cause distress and impact daily functioning. Feeling temporary “retirement blues” or experiencing sadness are not the same as having clinical depression. Sadness is a temporary emotion while clinical depression is a mental illness that typically won’t resolve without treatment.

People living with depression might feel depressed in a way that causes them to withdraw from the company of others, struggle to concentrate, and experience feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and mood swings. Additional symptoms of depression can include but are not limited to appetite changes, difficulty sleeping, thoughts of suicide, and coping with substance misuse (formerly known as “substance abuse”). 

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), older adults make up 18% of all suicide-caused deaths. 2023 reports show that those over 75 represent 19.56% of these deaths, and those over 85 represent 22.3%. This is one of many reasons why learning to recognize the symptoms of depression and seeking treatment if you notice them can be so important.

The link between retirement, mental health, and depression

Many people look forward to retiring in their older years and enjoying a lifestyle that no longer involves formal work. However, for some, their former profession may have provided many elements that contributed to their well-being or happiness. For example, individuals might have found value in the routine, having a sense of purpose, and maintaining connections with coworkers. While there are opportunities to experience these things during retirement too, it may require more effort than many retirees expected.  

Being aware of the changes that can be expected with the transition to retirement may help a person manage this shift more effectively. Preparing for these changes ahead of time may also help an individual reduce their risk of depression and other negative outcomes. Examples of ways to prepare could include making retirement plans for how you’ll spend your newfound free time, healthy routines you’ll adopt, and how you’ll maintain social connections. Planning to bridge the employment gap and gradually transition over a few months before reaching full-time retirement could be beneficial as well, if possible.

Factors that may affect a person’s mental health in retirement

The nature of an individual's retirement is one factor that can impact the link between retirement and depression. For example, some individuals are pushed into early retirement for reasons unrelated to reaching a certain age, such as health issues, being laid off, or having to care for a family member. People who are forced to retire might be more likely to experience depression than those who choose to do so. 

If a person is pushed into retirement life before being financially ready, the loss of financial well-being can also cause depression. While some retirees can live off pensions or passive income, others don’t have these resources. This can lead to uncertainty and stress, which could contribute to depression.

Finally, it’s also worth noting that depression seems to have at least some genetic component. That means that individuals with a family history of this illness may be at increased risk of developing it, particularly when experiencing a major life change like retirement.

Treatment options

Treatment methods for depression can vary depending on the individual, the intensity of their symptoms, and other factors. That said, the first-line treatment is usually some form of talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). Medication is sometimes prescribed in conjunction with therapy, and your doctor or therapist may recommend adopting healthy lifestyle habits like regular exercise to help reduce symptoms, too.

How to manage your mental health in retirement

Many people look to retirement as a time to relax and enjoy their life, but depression can make this difficult. It could cause a person to struggle to find the motivation to get out of bed, practice basic hygiene, or see friends and family—which could all exacerbate depressive symptoms. 

If you’re experiencing signs of retirement depression, it’s recommended that you meet with a mental health professional like a therapist for support and treatment advice. In addition, or if you’re looking to reduce your risk of developing depression in retirement, you might consider the following strategies supported by many a health and retirement study.

Socialize regularly

Humans are social creatures. In fact, research suggests that having a strong social support network can help reduce feelings of loneliness, improve both physical and mental health, and increase longevity in some cases. However, if you used to depend on work as a way to get your social needs met, you may need to explore other options for social connection in retirement. Examples could include joining a gym, taking a class, signing up for a volunteer position, or picking up a hobby that you can engage in with other people (e.g., dominoes, pickleball, bingo, etc).

Create routines

Creating a routine can offer a sense of purpose and predictability, and it can also make it easier to keep up with healthy habits like eating nutritious foods, exercising, and socializing. Without the routines associated with going to work every day, a retired person may benefit from creating new ones. While you don’t need to plan out every minute of your time, it could help to set up activities or habits that you engage in daily or weekly. Some examples include:

  • Waking up and going to sleep at the same time each day
  • Eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily
  • Walking the dog each morning
  • Reading the paper at the library or a cafe each afternoon
  • Taking a dance class twice a week
  • Meeting a neighbor for coffee every Sunday
  • Journaling, meditating, or doing yoga each evening

Identify a sense of purpose

A growing body of research suggests that having a sense of purpose can be an important component of well-being. According to a 2022 study, it’s been associated with positive outcomes such as:

  • Reduced risk of mortality
  • Engaging in more positive health behaviors
  • Reduced risk of sleep issues
  • Higher levels of optimism
  • Lower risk of depression

It’s not uncommon for people to find a sense of purpose in their work, which means that they may need to find a new one upon retirement. It may take time to discover what gives you a sense of meaning in this new phase of life. Examples of common sources of purpose for retirees can include spending time with grandchildren, traveling, devoting time and energy to a charitable cause, working on a long-term project, building new skills, or writing a novel.

Depression can affect anyone

Stay physically active for physical and mental health

Engaging in regular exercise is recommended for people of all ages, including older adults. According to an article from Harvard Health Publishing, some potential benefits of regular physical activity for older adults can include reduced risk of certain physical health problems, improved mental health, and better mobility. It may also decrease the risk of dementia and other types of cognitive decline often associated with aging. 

Taking regular exercise classes, walking in the park, swimming laps at the pool, or following along with aerobics or dance videos in your living room are all examples of ways to work physical activity into your routine.

Ask for help

Adjusting to retirement can be challenging. If you're not around other people who are also retiring or a support system is missing from your life, you might experience additional challenges in your transition. Reaching out for support can be a sign of strength and is nothing to be embarrassed about, as taking steps to improve the quality of your life can show courage in any phase of life. Meeting other people your age, joining support groups, and meeting with a therapist are all options to consider exploring. 

Seeking personalized support—with or without health insurance 

While talking about your challenges can be beneficial for mental health, some retirees might feel uncomfortable discussing their feelings and struggles with a family therapist in person. If the idea of face-to-face therapy is intimidating, online counseling sessions may better fit your needs. 

An internet-based therapy platform like BetterHelp may make you feel more comfortable opening up, since you can use it to get matched with a licensed therapist and then meet with them via phone or video call from the comfort of your home. BetterHelp can also be an option worth exploring for those on a fixed income or without health insurance, since session costs are comparable to most insurance co-pays.

Extensive research has been done on the impact of online mental health care for individuals experiencing symptoms of depression, with many pointing to its potential effectiveness. A 2022 study, for example, suggests that internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (iCBT) may be effective in reducing symptoms of depression in adult clients, including older adults.

Takeaway

Adjusting to the retirement transition is challenging for many individuals, and it’s possible to develop retirement depression as a result of this significant life change. Staying socially connected, developing routines, identifying a sense of purpose, aiming for a gradual transition, and seeking support are all strategies that could help a retired person maintain good health. If you’re looking for guidance or someone to talk to during this time, online or in-person therapy could be worth exploring.
Depression is treatable, and you're not alone
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