The late Pamela Hixon of Leipsic, Ohio, was eager to retire from her job running a hospice agency. Soon after she quit, however, Hixon spiraled into depression and anxiety. She sought help from counselors and her pastor, but it wasn't enough. Six months after retiring, she took her own life.
"She lost purpose, she lost significance, she lost a sense of meaning in her life," says her son Tony Hixon, a Findlay, Ohio-based wealth manager who wrote about the experience and how it transformed his financial planning practice in a book, "Retirement Stepping Stones: Find Meaning, Live With Purpose, and Leave a Legacy."
Overall, retirees are a contented bunch and many report being happier in retirement than they were at the end of their careers. Older adults are less likely than younger people to experience major depression, says Brent Forester, president of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry.
Nonetheless, retirement often involves significant losses — of identity, purpose, structure and social contacts — that can trigger depression and other psychiatric illnesses, says Forester, who also heads the geriatric psychiatry division at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.
"Getting depressed is not a normal part of aging," Forester says. "But one of the risk factors [for depression] is loss, and the loss of one's professional identity, the loss of one's job, is a big one."
Retiring can pose challenges
Often, people are too busy working and raising families to develop interests that might offer structure and purpose in retirement, Forester says. Their social networks can disappear if they primarily made friends through work, or they move to a new community after retirement. (Social isolation is another big risk factor for depression and many other health problems.)
Substance abuse can cause problems for retirees, as well, Forester says. Some people may use their unstructured time to drink more or use drugs more often, and aging brains are much more sensitive to the adverse effects of these substances, he adds.
People also have time to think about bigger questions of purpose and meaning, Hixon says.
"The age-old question of 'Why am I here?' can get crowded out by being busy," Hixon says. "Upon retirement, you do have time, and that question can sometimes plague a person."
How to ease the transition
People may be so desperate to get away from workplace stressors — a bad boss, too heavy a workload, a rigid schedule — that they don't fully consider the benefits they get from working. Or they may be accustomed to viewing retirement as the finish line and don't think deeply about what their day-to-day lives might look like without work.
"Retirement is a transition, not a destination," says psychologist and retirement coach Dorian Mintzer of Boston. "It's very helpful to think about 'What are you retiring to?'"
Consider how you'll spend your days and what might offer "a sense of connection, engagement, purpose and meaning," says Mintzer, co-author of "The Couple's Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Creating an Amazing New Life Together." That might include hobbies, volunteering or time with family, for example. Figure out what gives you joy as well as what new things you'd like to do or learn next.
"What are some of the things you had to put on the back burner when you were younger?" Mintzer asks.
Part-time work is another option, she says. Reducing the hours you work can help alleviate burnout while allowing you more free time. Talking with a therapist, coach or sympathetic friend may ease the transition, as well.
"Get support from people. Don't be afraid to ask for help," Mintzer says.
When and where to find help
Of course, many people are pushed into retirement earlier than they planned because of job loss, poor health or unexpected events such as the current pandemic. People who retire involuntarily are often less satisfied with their lives and suffer from worse mental health than those who retire voluntarily. People experiencing financial strains — a common result of unexpected retirement — may be more vulnerable to depression and other mental health problems.
Complicating matters further, the symptoms of depression and other mental health issues may be different in older adults, Forester says. Rather than feeling sadness, for example, depressed older people may feel numb or anxious, have difficulty with memory or decisions, or suffer from otherwise unexplained physical complaints.
If you're concerned about your mental health, consider talking to your doctor. Depression and other mental health problems are medical conditions that typically can be treated with medication and therapy. If you're concerned about a loved one, encourage them to seek medical treatment and to follow their treatment plan. You may need to help them make the initial appointments or accompany them to treatment, since lack of motivation and energy are common symptoms of depression.
For help and more information, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
And if you're considering retirement, make sure you have a life plan as well as a financial plan.
"Just the act of planning can help you feel more in control and less anxious," Mintzer says.