Retirement is great! For many of us, it is that “golden years” time when golfing, fishing, hobbies, travel, grandchildren, and other fun stuff fills our day. No more job stress, no more hurrying through trying to pack too much work and activity into a day. All is good.
For some of us that statement is actually true. Most retirees do live a good life. Unfortunately, there are quite a few who don’t share that sentiment. We may have the finances in order. We might have good plans for fun times, but in spite of it all, we may be living on the dark side of retirement.
Numerous sources indicate that about one in five people over the age of 65 will suffer from a mental illness, primarily depression, related to retirement. Too often people enter retirement on a high, but within months, slip into a state of a lost sense of purpose and relevance.
When the issue is depression, a long list of physical and mental effects can be involved. These include loss of energy, loss of interest in activities and in life, sadness, loss of appetite and weight, difficulty concentrating, self-criticism, feelings of hopelessness, physical complaints, withdrawal from other people, irritability, difficulty making decisions, and suicidal thinking. Many depressed people feel anxious, worried, nauseated, or dizzy, and sometimes have hot and cold flashes, blurred vision, racing heartbeat, and sweating. The result can be an increase in drug and alcohol use among seniors, and more dramatically, an increasing rate of suicide. In fact, the over 65 age group has the highest incidence of suicide.
It’s a complicated time of life. Retirement is just one of the factors that impact mental health in our later years. Loss of a life partner through divorce or death, loss of the role and identity we held in our work life, the onset of chronic health conditions, the scattering of family, and the loss of our old social networks all make for a toxic bombardment on our mental health. The impact is that about 20 percent of retirees will struggle with a mental health issue within a few years following retirement.
This writer does not have to search far to find an example. Upon retiring from a high stress position in April 2014, life was good. There were fish to catch, a book to write, and all the summer activity typical in rural Minnesota. All was fine, but at the same time, the body was going through a tremendous adjustment coming off the high adrenaline of work and into the low stress of retirement. Then October came and the first waves of anxiety hit. These weren’t little waves. They were big ones that sometimes lasted for days. The sensation was that of something dark and ugly pressing down on the spirit and crushing the life out. In the depths of these bouts, it was easy to see that this state was incompatible with life. I had never understood the decision making of people I knew who had chosen to check out early. Now, I understood completely. In those darkest moments it was impossible to imagine a future outside of that gloom.
My solution started when I shared what was happening. There actually was a route back to normal, and I took it. All too often, though, people never say anything. They are embarrassed and don’t want others to think of them as weak or unbalanced. That is when bad outcomes happen.
There are a variety of solutions for people who encounter mental health challenges after retirement. First, the family physician can help. There are medications available to take the hard edge off depression or anxiety, at least enough to allow one to begin the process of making the lifestyle changes that may be required. Other mental health counseling professionals can help in sorting out the cognitive issues that are often at the root of or the result of mental illness.
The next step is to get going and get active. That includes a long list of things. Exercise helps. Getting a part-time job, volunteering at a place where there are other people and social connections helps. Church is a great place to start that process, but the local coffee shops with a table of friends are great too. Building and re-engaging in a social network is critical. Finding enjoyable activities that occupy the mind and body help. The key is to engage in something significant and rebuild a sense of purpose and connection.
Some of us figure all this out after we have experienced the big crash. Those who are more prepared ahead of time deal with it before retirement. They pre-plan those activities and relationships before the transition, thereby avoiding all the mental trauma that goes with change.
For those who may be heading toward retirement in the very near future and aren’t ready, part of the key to survival is to recognize and expect that trouble might happen. Being blindsided as I was is dangerous. However, if you know it is coming and anticipate its arrival it becomes less of a big deal. You can manage it without fear, knowing that there is a way out.
It is easy to say we should be volunteering and staying socially engaged. It is quite achievable in the big city. Living in rural Minnesota, as most of us do, there are fewer resources and agencies seeking our participation. However, that does not leave us without resources.
The greatest resource we have in our small towns is each other. Know that one in every five of your own friends and relatives is struggling. Have the conversations and figure out who they are. You might be the person they need in order to avoid theirs being the next unanticipated funeral in your town where everyone says, “Well, she never showed any hint that something was wrong.”
In the world of abuse and exploitation they have a term, “Tell someone.” That term is no less important for us seniors. If you are struggling, tell someone. There is no reason to feel ashamed. It isn’t your fault. Sometimes stuff just happens. The worst and most dangerous thing is to bear the burden alone.
Bill Ward is a retired senior care services administrator and regular columnist for Sr. Perspective and other newspapers. A variety of online resources were consulted for this article.