Is Retirement Good or Bad for Your Mental Health?

Retirement is supposed to be one of the best times in your life. You’ve worked for so many years to finally reach this point, and now you can relax and enjoy your time with family and friends. You can move to a warmer climate if you prefer, sleep in, and enjoy your favorite hobbies whenever you like. Although retirement is a joyous time for many older adults, some don’t feel so optimistic after retirement. In fact, retirement can bring about some significant mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. Given that, is retirement actually good or bad for your mental health?

If you or a loved one is approaching retirement age, you should be aware of the psychological effects of retirement and what you can do to protect your mental health. Some seniors feel happier and more peaceful when they retire while others struggle finding activities to keep them occupied. The effects that retirement may have on your mental health vary depending on your lifestyle, your financial readiness, your social support network, and many other factors.

John Rowe, MD, Professor of Health Policy and Aging at the Columbia University School of Public Health, is an expert on growing older, the social determinants of good health in old age, and what it means to age successfully in retirement. He recently discussed reasons why retirement can be both good and bad for your mental health. Based on Rowe’s research and other sources, below are some of the emotions that seniors may experience when they retire and actions they can take to alleviate any negative feelings and concerns.

Emotions Seniors May Feel When They Retire

Because so many aspects of your life change when you retire, you may feel conflicting emotions when you are considering retirement. These are some of the emotions that go along with retiring, and what you can do to improve the situation:

  • Loss of purpose: If you disliked your job or didn’t find much personal meaning in your work, you’re probably excited to part ways with your career. However, if your job was a source of personal pride, giving it up can be painful. Without your career, you may not know who you are or what you have to offer. Many seniors feel as though they have to reinvent themselves after retirement because so much of their identity was connected to their work. This is why meaningful activities and social outlets are important for older adults adjusting to retirement. In addition, finding a meaningful hobby or volunteer opportunity can help make the retirement transition easier.
  • Feelings of loneliness and social isolation: When you retire, you may struggle to meet your social needs if most of your interactions had been with coworkers. Everyone needs regular social interaction to maintain their mental health and avoid depression.
    • In his research, Dr. Rowe discusses the importance of being socially connected and engaged. According to Rowe, “(y)ou have to maintain engagement in your community and interact with other people. . . You really have to connect. You can achieve this either by staying in the labor force or volunteering. Both have been shown to be remarkably effective, and there are terrific benefits to cognition, physical health, and psychological health. I continue to work because I really enjoy it, and the idea of retiring and going to the golf course (or worse, the couch) is not good. So, if you must retire as most of us do, be sure to stay engaged through volunteerism. Research has shown that there are significant advantages both for the volunteer and, of course, for the people they help.”
  • Not as much structure in your life: Your career probably provided a great deal of structure and routine. You may wake up at the same time every day, travel to the same place, and see the same people. Following a routine can be an excellent way to maintain your mental health because it creates a sense of comfort and encourages you to keep moving. When you retire, you may feel as if you’ve lost that structure in your life. Some older adults love this newfound freedom and look forward to the flexibility of each new day. Others struggle with the lack of routine.
    • Adding structure and variety to your life while adjusting to retirement can be helpful. You don’t have to follow a rigid routine with a full schedule every day, but incorporating a variety of activities both in and out of the house allows you to find a new sense of purpose. Staying active with hobbies and activities is also a great way to keep your mind sharp.
  • Physical health concerns: Some people who retire see their health improve if they use their extra time to get active and focus on a healthy lifestyle. However, many seniors become more sedentary during retirement. Spending most of your time at home without keeping your body moving will take a toll. A decline in your physical health can affect your mental health, and even lead to cognitive decline.
    • “In addition to social engagement, physical activity is paramount to aging successfully,” Rowe says. “For adults 65 and older, the CDC recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate activity, like brisk walking, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity, like hiking, jogging, or running.” Rowe recommends brisk walking, but advises that any kind of activity is more beneficial than being sedentary.
  • Concerns about getting older: Aging is a natural part of life, but it can also be a major source of anxiety. For some seniors, retirement brings up some deeply rooted fears about aging. You’re entering a new phase of your life. You may start thinking more about what will happen as you age or what will happen to your family when you pass away.
    • You’re only as old as you feel. According to Rowe, who is 78 himself, “70 is the new 60.” He states that, “(e)verybody recognizes that people are living longer, and not only living longer, but living healthier. . . . The return on investment can’t be understated in terms of keeping people cognitively intact, and there are indirect benefits as well.”
    • Research led by Rowe and colleagues found that adults aged more successfully when they felt they were in control of their health, especially compared to those who felt they had limited influence on their long-term wellbeing. “This is a major myth of aging, that to be old is to automatically have diminished capacity. Believing that really impacts people negatively,” Rowe says.
  • Concerns about staying mentally sharp: Some people are concerned that when they leave the workplace, they are no longer staying as mentally active as much as they once were. Experts believe that ongoing education may help keep you mentally sharp simply by getting you in the habit of staying mentally active. Exercising your brain may also help prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia.
    • “Challenging your brain with mental exercise is believed to activate processes that help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication among them,” according to Harvard Medical School’s Healthbeat newsletter. To stay mentally engaged, choose something that is new and that you enjoy. Consider taking a class at a senior center or community college, learn to play an instrument, or make it a habit to regularly read new books.
  • Concerns about funds: Adjusting to retirement may involve making changes to your lifestyle and spending to accommodate for a drop in income. This can cause concern and anxiety when it comes to finances.
  • For those who retire earlier: Leaving behind your career and what are probably your highest earning years early will mean you could be leaving many years of potential retirement savings behind. Plus, while you may be eligible for Social Security at age 62, your monthly amount will be less if you don’t wait until you are old enough for your full benefit. And, finally, you will need to have a plan for health insurance since you won’t be able to get Medicare until age 65.
  • For those who retire later: Some people love their work and feel like they would be lost without it. For them, continuing to work longer may be better mentally and emotionally. Plus, if you wait until age 70 or older to start taking your Social Security benefits, your payout will be the highest on top of the extra years of retirement savings and investing. You may never have to worry about having enough money in retirement. On the flipside though, even if your nest egg is larger, you will not be able to predict what your energy level or overall health will look like as you get older. Your health could start declining before you retire or after. You could be giving up the opportunities to travel or do other things you enjoy that you always planned to do in retirement if you wait.

Maintaining Good Mental Health During Retirement

Transitioning into retirement, relocating to a new residential area or care facility, or experiencing changes in living arrangements can be unsettling for some senior citizens. Adjusting to new routines, unfamiliar surroundings, and a loss of familiarity can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression. But it doesn’t have to!

Retirement has its risks, but it is possible to keep your mental health in good shape. For peace of mind, plan for your retirement, and complete your incapacity planning, estate planning, and long-term care planning as early as possible. That way you can spend more time focusing on everything else that equally matters.

Planning for Retirement

Whether your retirement is coming up soon or is many years away, it is important to protect your hard work and your golden years with effective retirement planning and long-term care financial planning.

Besides being a Certified Elder Law Attorney, I am also an experienced retirement planning advisor and long-term care financial advisor through my affiliation with Protection Point Advisors.

Retirement planners, such as myself, generally work with people ages 55 and older, who are within ten to twenty years or so of their desired retirement age.

If you have not done your Estate Planning or Retirement Planning or had your planning documents and Retirement Plan reviewed lately, please call us for an initial consultation or a free annual review for members of our Lifetime Protection Plan®:

To get started on retirement planning, estate planning, or long-term care planning, please contact us to make an appointment:

Northern Virginia Retirement Planning: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg, VA Retirement Planning: 540-479-1435
Rockville, MD Retirement Planning: 301-519-8041
Washington, DC Retirement Planning: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.