Depression is the most prevalent mental health problem among older adults, and a common mistake in planning for retirement is not considering the emotional adjustment that occurs.1 Symptoms of depression can include sadness, disturbed sleep, and loss of interest in things you enjoyed. Depression can last anywhere from weeks to years depending on life satisfaction and treatment.
The good news is that depression after retirement is a treatable condition in about 80% of all cases.1
12 Signs & Symptoms of Depression After Retirement
Depression is a mood disorder that disrupts your normal disposition or mood and impacts your ability to function day to day, and can be triggered by retirement. People’s identity and status can be very closely linked with their work, so when they transition into retirement, they often experience feelings of significant loss. Regardless of the age someone retires, there’s usually a “sugar rush” of excitement and life satisfaction right after someone retires, then a decline in happiness and fulfillment later on.7
Twelve of the most common signs and symptoms of depression include:
- Loss of interest in things you enjoyed
- Thoughts of self harm
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Inability to sleep or sleeping too much
- Loss of appetite
- Irritability or agitation
- Lack of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Inability to focus or concentrate
- Unexplained physical pain, headaches, backaches with no physical cause
How Common Is Retirement Depression?
Retirement depression is fairly common, though there are several environmental factors that contribute to developing it. One factor that impacts the incidence of depression post-retirement is if it was present prior to retirement. A research study looked at the incidence of depression that occurred in a population of “late to middle aged workers” in the United States. They estimated that nine percent of all U.S. adults in the labor force suffer a bout of major depression in a 12 month time period.2
Gender is another factor: Women are about twice as likely to develop depression than men.3 Part of this is related to biological and hormonal differences between men and women. However, experts agree that both men and women are both at risk for depression when looking at retirement.
Risk Factors for Retirement Depression
There are several elements that can influence whether or not someone develops post depression retirement, like a lack of purpose, relationships, or structure outside of work. Someone with fulfilling ways to spend their time outside of their job may be less likely to develop retirement depression.
Here are five risk factors for depression after retirement:
1. Feeling Like You Have No Purpose Outside of Your Job
One of the most common reasons people feel depressed after leaving a job is they feel that their life without work has little purpose. This is especially true for people that had jobs that might be demanding but were also emotionally rewarding. A few examples include nurses, teachers, or firemen. They feel their work made a positive difference in people’s lives or helped to make the world a better place. Leaving that kind of job and the physical and emotional energy connected to it can be a very difficult adjustment.
2. No Longer Feeling Intellectually Stimulated
For many people, work provides an important social and intellectual outlet. Work can offer daily intellectual or physical stimulus that boosts self image and self confidence. This can be lost when retirement occurs.
3. Losing Important Relationships
The feeling of camaraderie that comes with work colleagues can be strong. Most of your time is spent with these people. Important relationships are created and developed over your work life. Depression can stem from the loss of these relationships, especially if there are not ongoing meaningful social connections in your personal life.
4. How You Retired
Another major risk factor for depression for those leaving the workforce has to do with why they leave their job. People react differently when they are forced to retire versus when they choose to retire on their own terms. They feel less emotionally prepared to transition with forced retirement.
5. Loss of Daily Structure
There may be concerns about how they will spend their time. People who have no hobbies, schedule, or family or friends, may feel a vacuum or emptiness trying to fill the time left open by retirement. This can feel overwhelming for people who have a hard time self motivating. People need a reason to get out of bed and start their day.
8 Tips for Coping With Retirement Depression
There are things that can be done to help make the transition from work to retirement a more healthy, smooth process. It involves creating opportunities to ease into retirement in a way that feels more acceptable.
Here are eight steps that can be taken to create a new lifestyle framework to help prepare for retirement:
1. Gradually Transition Out of Full Time Work
Instead of going from full-time work to fully retired, you could instead try “bridge employment.” This might be a part time job, being self-employed, or taking on a temporary job. People who had post retirement jobs related to their previous careers reported having better mental health than people who fully retired.8
Research studies consistently show that people who volunteer post retirement show a higher level of life satisfaction and feel a greater sense of psychological well being. They also find it fulfilling meeting new people and learning new skills. An additional bonus is the meaningful social interactions that happen during many volunteer positions.
3. Prepare in Advance
Leaving a full time job and going to no schedule heightens the possibility of depression. Create a schedule. Put things on your calendar. Plan activities. Make plans with family and friends. Join clubs. Incorporate some type of exercise in your daily routine. All of these things create a healthier lifestyle and promote more life satisfaction and increased happiness.
4. Consider Talking With a Therapist Who Specializes in Retirement & Older Adults
These are professionally trained people who help those who are transitioning to new phases in life. They can reveal opportunities resulting from retirement that were not on your radar. They can also help create new and meaningful ways to bring more satisfaction with you into retirement.
5. Prepare Your Finances
Fears about insufficient financial security is one of the top concerns of people facing retirement. This is a huge source of anxiety and can cause a flood of emotions including depression. Financial preparation and knowledge is important to figure out before retiring. Consider consulting with a financial planner so you have a clear understanding of your finances. You need to feel informed about the best ways to make your money and assets work for you.
6. Renegotiate Relationships at Home
Retirement also leads to change if you are living with someone else. Relationship dynamics and decision making can change when you do not work and you are both home for extended periods of time. If you were the primary source of income and now your partner has that role how does that impact your self identity? What roles do you and your partner have at home? How would you like to renegotiate these roles? Take the time to talk candidly with your loved ones about your questions or concerns regarding these issues. It will help the transition go more smoothly for all concerned.
7. Destigmatize Your Age
Retirement is often linked with age. Becoming a senior may have negative connotations causing negative feelings about yourself through internalized ageism. How you choose to look at this stage of your life can impact your emotional reaction and adjustment. Retirement can be perceived as entering “old age” and the final stage of life. A healthier way of viewing retirement is to look at it as the next stage of life and think about the possibilities and opportunities it may offer. This may be the time to fulfill goals and dreams that have been left aside in the past because of your job requirements. Decide to embrace positive aging.
8. Engage With Your Spiritual Life
Psychologists recommend you find activities where you can feed your “being” (spiritual, social, intellectual, creative, physical) thereby viewing your retirement as a source of sustenance.9
When to Seek Professional Help for Retirement Depression
Closely examine how you approach your day: You should be concerned if you continue to feel increasingly irritable, empty, and sad. Especially if you have negative thoughts about life and your future. Retirement may take away important social connections that are not present in your personal life.
Are you able to create or seek these connections with others? You need to define goals that offer meaning to your life. If you are experiencing problems in these areas it is important to seek out professional counseling as soon as possible. The longer you wait the more overwhelmed and at risk you can become. Feelings of depression and grief, self harm, and sadness may continue to grow if left untreated. Therapy can offer relief, insights, and guidance bringing strategies to cope with negative feelings associated with retirement.
How Depression After Retirement Is Treated
Therapy for depression after retirement is multifaceted. Counseling can help retirees increase their awareness of how their attitudes and behaviors could be enhancing or detracting from their quality of life after retirement. Counseling could also help clients understand that aspects of their former life structure that were peripheral may now become more central (e.g., recreational activities, hobbies, and volunteering).10
If a doctor determines the depression is severe, antidepressant medication is another treatment option. Antidepressants can help to stabilize your mood and emotions. It can also help improve sleep, ability to focus, and concentration.
Another source of help can be a retirement coach. Their role is unique. Their training revolves around helping you to identify your strengths, skills, and what brings you joy. A retirement coach can help you identify new opportunities to explore to help enhance your life. They also help you to achieve personal goals and articulate unfulfilled professional goals.
How to Get Help for Retirement Depression
The first step you should take is to reach out to your primary care physician and set up an appointment. Your doctor will do an examination to determine if your symptoms are the result of a medical issue or are emotionally based on your new situation. It is very important to have an honest conversation with your doctor about when you retired and the circumstances of your retirement.
If your doctor rules out a medical cause the next step is to seek out a therapist. Select a therapist or counselor who has expertise working with older adults and especially retirees. They are trained to counsel around issues arising from aging, major life transitions, and to help you to identify ways to enhance your quality of life. These are often key components that need to be focused on for depression stemming from retirement.
Group therapy and chat rooms are another useful source of help in coping with retirement related depression. Talking with other people who have gone through similar circumstances can help you feel less alone. It can also be helpful to realize that the feelings you have are not unusual. Internet chat rooms are easily accessed and people are available 24 hours on some sites.
How to Help a Loved One Experiencing Retirement Depression
One of the hardest aspects of depression is that, sometimes, the person who is depressed does not acknowledge or recognize it. If you do observe a loved one who is depressed or having difficulty functioning, talk to them about it in a caring, compassionate manner. Gently point out changes in behavior that concern you.
Encourage your loved one to reach out for help. Support those efforts. If you know of a healthcare professional that can be a good resource share that information with your loved one. If it is recommended by the healthcare professional, and you are willing, it may be helpful for you to participate in the treatment program. For example, family therapy or couples therapy.
Retirement is not only an adjustment for the retiree. It is also an adjustment for family members. Retirement changes the dynamics in the household. Roles and relationships can change. The division of labor can be altered. Decision-making processes may need to change to create a more comfortable home environment. Your willingness to re-negotiate these dynamics and incorporate some flexibility can help the transition process.
Recognize that retirement may have some surprising and challenging aspects for your loved one. That often can be true for family members of the retiree. Allow yourself and your loved one time to establish a new schedule and a new day to day lifestyle. Have an open, ongoing dialogue about it. You may initially need to take on more daily tasks. If you have any concerns about suicide contact the doctor or therapist immediately or call 911 for help.
Encourage your loved one to create new life goals. Perhaps you can be a part of some of these plans. Help strategize about things you can do together. Encourage your loved one to create or follow interests, activities, social outlets that they enjoy. It can help strengthen your relationship. Your support in reincorporating new meaning and purpose in a retiree’s life will help them to move forward to overcome their depression.
For Further Reading
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): A U.S. Government free hotline under the Department of Health and Human Services. They are available every day 24 hours a day for people needing help with mental health issues and substance abuse. They provide local referrals for counseling, support groups, and treatment programs. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- International Coaching Federation (ICF): This website will help you find a trained, certified retirement coach in your area. They offer services in the United States and Internationally.
- National Career Development Association (NCDA): Offers resources for people who want a different career, volunteer opportunities, counseling, and help figuring out what is next for them.
- Silversurfers: An online chat room for seniors. They have a section on retirement where you can ask questions and talk to other retirees and exchange information and resources.
- Life Lived Forward: A blog created by Sara Zeff Geber, PhD. She is an expert on retirement and aging. Her site offers information, education, resources, counseling, and support for retirees.
- Retirement Options: This website offers ways to find a certified retirement coach throughout the United States and Internationally.
Retirement and Depression Infographics