Finding Peace: Nurturing Your Mental Health In Retirement
According to the National Institute of Health, Growing Older in America: The Health & Retirement Study (HRS), most retirees (61%) are "very satisfied" with retirement. But there is an inextricable link between emotional well-being and longevity. Serious mental illnesses can decrease life expectancy by 10 to 25 years. The transition into retirement brings about various changes that can bring both happiness and a sense of freedom but can also lead to stress and uncertainty. Therefore, it is essential to thoroughly understand the critical issues surrounding mental health among seniors and practical techniques for improving mental well-being.
Recognizing Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety are significant concerns within the older population. The 2019 Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study revealed that 13.8% of adults ages 60 or older experience mental health disorders. Among the various mental and neurological disorders prevalent in the older population, depression and anxiety are two significant conditions affecting approximately 7% and 3.8% of this age group, respectively. Shockingly, a quarter of self-harm-related fatalities occur among people aged 60 or above. Regrettably, there is a severe shortage of geriatric psychiatric healthcare workers, and these mental health problems tend to be overlooked by other medical professionals and retirees themselves. The stigma surrounding these conditions further deters individuals from seeking help for their struggles.
Several factors contribute to mental health challenges among seniors:
- Chronic Illness: Many seniors suffer from chronic illnesses that can either cause or worsen their mental health problems. Approximately 50% of men and 30% of women aged 50 and above who retired early reported that poor health (including depression) hindered their working ability. Moreover, retirees with health problems tend to experience lower satisfaction levels in their retirement. The impact of poor health extends beyond physical limitations; it also contributes to social isolation and feelings of loneliness among older adults due to mobility challenges. Furthermore, those facing physical health issues often encounter financial difficulties due to unexpected loss of income and employer-provided healthcare coverage. These circumstances make meeting their ongoing financial obligations and healthcare requirements more challenging.
- Loss: Losing loved ones, independence, or a sense of purpose can result in feelings of emptiness or depression. Grieving individuals commonly exhibit reduced social interactions, unhealthy habits (eating, sleeping, alcohol consumption), and compromised cardiovascular fitness. For most older individuals, the emotional reaction to loss or death tends to diminish over time. However, studies show that prolonged periods of grief that extend beyond a temporary phase lead to elevated levels of disease comorbidity, increased mortality rates, and a heightened risk of disability and suicide.
- Financial Stress: Uncertainty regarding finances or healthcare costs can trigger anxiety and stress. A significant discovery by the HRS reveals a strong association between the health of retirees in America and their financial well-being. Married couples who reported excellent health had an average household wealth three times higher than those who reported poor health. The difference was even more pronounced among unmarried participants, with individuals in excellent health having over five times greater household wealth than those in poor health. Furthermore, the joint health status of both husbands and wives was closely linked to net worth. The cost of care and inability to work likely contributed to the lower net worth of unhealthy individuals. Interestingly, the study also revealed that the composition of portfolios directly correlates to health status. Retirees in poor health tend to have relatively conservative portfolios (invested in cash, money market funds, checking and savings accounts, CDs, U.S. Treasury bills, and Government savings bonds) compared with those in good health who were more likely to save in stock and corporate bonds.
Strategies for Improving Mental Health
The transition into retirement is a significant change that often involves the loss of one's job-related identity. This loss of social role can lead to decreased life satisfaction and increased dismay. Retirees are particularly vulnerable to poor mental health when uncertain about their new social role or have not fully embraced it. This transitional phase can vary in duration, with some individuals quickly moving on to a second career or taking on a new social role like caregiving. In contrast, others may struggle for months or even years if they lack a retirement plan or have difficulty adjusting.
- Maintaining Autonomy: When older adults can make voluntary decisions, feel capable, and meet their expectations, they tend to experience higher levels of life satisfaction. In line with this, older adults who retire voluntarily (such as to escape job stress or pursue other interests) report greater life satisfaction and lower rates of depression compared to those who retire due to pressure from employers or other circumstances.
- Social Interaction: Isolation often has a significant role in exacerbating depressive symptoms. To combat these tendencies, actively participate in community gatherings, join fraternal or religious organizations, or seek volunteer opportunities to cultivate connections and friendships. Older adults with a stronger sense of belonging in their communities and receiving more social support tend to experience better mental health outcomes. On the other hand, those who frequently feel socially isolated are more likely to experience symptoms of depression. Typically, older adults find social support from their spouse, close family members, friends, or strong connections within their community. Work-based relationships can also contribute to a lower risk of depression. However, for individuals relying on work-related social support, it is crucial to establish new networks after retirement to prevent social isolation and maintain a high quality of life.
- Keep Moving: Physical activity not only maintains physical fitness but also enhances mental well-being. Engaging in activities such as walking, swimming, or practicing yoga can be both pleasurable and therapeutic. Extensive evidence supports the notion that exercise can effectively alleviate symptoms of mild to moderate depression. In particular, community-based exercise programs, which fuse social commitment with physical activity, have shown even greater efficacy in improving mental health outcomes. Among these initiatives is the YMCA SilverSneakers program, one of the largest community-based exercise programs, offering tailor-made group fitness classes for older adults. Evaluations conducted on this program have revealed that participants experience reduced social isolation and are less likely to exhibit symptoms of depression.
- Financial Planning: Knowing that cash flow will continue throughout retirement provides peace of mind and a sense of comfort to safeguard against anxiety. Ensuring the stability of retirement plans and seeking financial management education can help alleviate stress related to financial matters.
- Mental Health Professionals: Therapy sessions, counseling, and support groups can profoundly impact the emotional well-being of older individuals. Keeping track of medication intake and managing chronic health conditions can lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety. Regular appointments with healthcare providers are essential for evaluating and addressing these concerns.
Define Your Quality of Life
Retirement is generally a time of satisfaction and freedom for most retirees, but mental health plays a crucial role in overall well-being and longevity. Understanding the critical issues surrounding mental health among seniors and implementing practical techniques for maintaining or improving mental well-being is essential. As you enter retirement years, ensuring that you have a stable and solid financial plan is a major part of that stress management. If you're uncertain what retirement might look like for you, reach out for a complementary consultation with one of the fiduciary financial advisors at Hurlow Wealth Management Group.
- If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.
- If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or engaging in suicidal behavior, seek help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741
- To learn how to get support for mental health, drug, and alcohol issues, visit FindSupport.gov.
- To locate treatment facilities or providers, visit FindTreatment.gov or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).