Retirement and the risk of depression

Older woman walks through the woods with two dogs

Mental health counselors are familiar with the pattern. A person retires, and for a few years everything is fine. But then, some retirees — especially men — fall into depression. One frequently cited study found that the incidence of self-reported depression goes up by 40% during those first few retirement years.

While these trend lines have long been recognized, the reasons can vary. By being aware of the risks and possible causes, you can take steps to avoid the situational depression that can accompany retirement.

Retirement reality vs. expectations

For many, the retirement experience falls short of their expectations either financially or emotionally. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research focused on the correlation of depression and expectations. People who were still working at 65 when they had hoped to be retired had similar rates of depression as those who were forced to retire earlier than expected.

Though one group was working, and the other was retired, what they shared was disappointment that their lives were not going as planned. It’s important to work with a financial planner in the decade before your intended retirement year. This gives you enough time to make changes to your retirement plans so that you can ensure you’re on the right path to the lifestyle you imagine.

The importance of work

In the research on retirement and depression, a number of studies have found patterns related to the “loss” of the work experience itself.  As much as you may look forward to the day you no longer need to go to work, many will end up missing it when it’s gone.

This isn’t surprising. Next to your families, you invest most of your energy into your careers. Much of your self-identity is defined by what you “do for a living.” It’s one of the first things you mention when introducing yourself to a stranger. But what are you when you are not that anymore?

This is an especially difficult question for men. Perhaps because of the ingrained acceptance of gender roles, men suffer from post-retirement depression more than women. A 2013 Canadian study of depression in older men found a strong correlation between men’s feelings of self-worth through employment and depression once that employment ends.

For many it’s also the human interaction of the workplace that they miss. The workplace provides a social setting of conversation and camaraderie. You may not see these people outside of work-related events, but they’re still important relationships, and suddenly they’re all gone.

To handle these losses, people are creating solutions that are improving how both employees and employers experience retirement. A study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology concluded that “bridge employment” as a transition to full retirement was linked to better mental and physical health compared to those who went straight from full employment to full retirement.

This concept of bridge employment is already being tested. Unlike older generations, Boomers intend to keep working in some capacity past their designated retirement age. In response to this trend, according to a Transamerica survey, 88% of employers say they support employees staying on the job past age 65. But, only 48% have practices in place to enable full-timers to shift to a part-time role. However, they are open to having someone lead the development of such a practice.

Loss and loneliness

Despite the best of intentions, by the time you reach your mid-60s, you’re likely to have experienced the deaths of loved ones or may be struggling with health issues yourself.

Retirement can also put a strain on your marriage, and that can lead to depression if one of you is more interested in having time together than the other. The divorce rate typically increases during the first few years of retirement, leaving many living alone.

A 2003 study published by the Journal of Aging and Mental Health found the most significant contributor to self-reported depression was a sense of loneliness. Losses that can increase feelings of loneliness can include:

  • Loss of a spouse due to death or separation.
  • Adult children busy in their own lives or living too far away to visit often.
  • Loss of workplace relationships.

Further, isolation can result in distant family members not noticing the loneliness spiral before it is advanced.

What you can do to avoid depression in retirement

The situational depression of retirement can be mitigated by making intentional changes.

  1. Keep working.  Given the impact a change in work status, plan a gradual transition from full-time work to full-time retirement. Talk with Human Resources about creating a bridge employment program, or the possibility of working part-time. If neither are an option, consider a part-time job or scheduled on-site volunteer work.
  2. Take care of your physical health. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise can help ease depression by releasing feel-good endorphins and help you learn to deal with it in a healthier way. Expand how you think about the things you like to do. Even less intense activities, like gardening, can provide significant exercise.
  3. Socialize. In addition to staying in touch with some of your former co-workers, check out all of the events in your community from social to cultural, use the Facebook events feature or look for meetups on topics that interest you.
  4. Volunteer. Sign up to work at your favorite philanthropy, food pantry or be a mentor in your profession. This is a good time to revisit interests that you had no time to explore while working.  Whether you are interested in local history, wildlife or how theatrical productions are staged, you can probably find an organization that needs help.
  5. Learn something new. Don’t overlook the importance of exercising your mind. New brain cell growth is ongoing; learning something new stimulates that process. Picking up a new complex skill like learning a new language or developing a new skill in a class setting is most effective for cognitive well being.
  6. Talk about it. If you’re disappointed because retirement life isn’t meeting your expectations, talk to someone. These feelings are very common. If, however, you think your feelings of depression are becoming severe, or even clinical, talk with a therapist.

Signs of clinical depression

First, be aware of signs of clinical depression that could need medical treatment:

  • Feelings of emptiness.
  • Not wanting to get out of bed.
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.
  • Loss of interests in activities you once enjoyed.
  • Suicidal thoughts.

If you experience any of these feelings, see your doctor. While clinical depression can be caused by many things, it can sometimes be triggered by medications – or combinations of medicines – that you’re taking for other purposes and be simple to resolve.

Take charge of your retirement:

While retirement can sometimes feel like an empty space, it can also be your chance to do what you’ve always wanted to do. Don’t let the situational depression of retirement stand in your way.