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Navigating retirement

Life can be stressful, and there are many twists and turns along the road. Things that just happen can cause stress: loss, bereavement, marriage, divorce, moving away, losing your job, examinations, developing an illness and other stressors. Many of these events are predictable and you have some level of control over them, but others are not.

We can measure the level of stress and the effect that life events have by what are termed life change units (Holmes and Rahe, 1967). As you can imagine, events that are sudden, unpredicted and out of sync with the expected stage of life – for example, when an older parent loses a child – are associated with the most stress and the highest number of life change units.

  • We know that when your brain perceives something as stressful, signals go from the brain to your adrenal gland and the stress hormone cortisol is released. This hormone cortisol is usually helpful to you as you cope with the stress: it prepares you for the so-called ‘fight or flight’.
  • However, if the stress response is severe or prolonged and the cortisol keeps pumping out into your system, then this excessive amount of cortisol can have damaging physical and mental effects: for example, you could become depressed or there could even be long-term effects on the heart.

So, it’s true to say that retirement is a major life event.

  • Retirement can be stressful for many people, and for some people, it can have significant health consequences. This is more likely to be true for people who are overly invested in their work, the so-called ‘workaholics’, but it can be stressful for anyone who retires. They say that the riskiest years of life in terms of mortality are the first year after birth and the couple of years after retirement (Spector and Lawrence, 2010)!
  • For at least one in three retirees, retirement can be associated with depression and many people post-retirement can get stuck in poor health behaviours like watching too much television simply out of boredom. Some retirees can slip into drinking more than they should, again because of the difficulty in adapting to this life change and trying to fill the time.
  • The good thing about retirement compared to other life events, such as a bereavement or physical illness, is that it’s predictable and for that reason, you can prepare for it.

Most people think ahead about retirement only in financial terms, trying to make sure that they have the financial capital to live comfortably. They fail to realise that they should also spend time focusing on building up their social capital for when they retire.

  • You spend half of your waking day at work, and work may provide many social contacts and connections. For some individuals, work may take up even more of their time and effort. For this reason, when a person retires, there can be a large void in terms of contact, activity, and both social and cognitive stimulation.
  • If a person has little structure outside of work or has few interests, this transition can be daunting and very stressful. And for some people, this retirement stress can cause weight gain because they are not now walking to work or walking as much as they used to when they worked. Retirement may also be accompanied by changes in mood or anxiety levels, and even cause depression for some.

So what are the best ways to navigate the life transition of retirement?

  • Think ahead:

The best approach is to plan your retirement and what you will do after retirement well in advance. Don’t just focus on the financials. You will need to challenge and change yourself after retirement and not just sit like a bump on a log. How will you occupy yourself? Do you have plans to keep yourself busy? Will you spend time with family, travel, or do you plan to work part-time or volunteer? Once the initial excitement around the retirement event subsides, people often experience a significant let down and a sense of aimlessness unless they have a plan of how they will occupy themselves. This has to be thought out and should be discussed with family and friends in advance.

  • Build your social network in advance:

One piece of good advice is to make sure that you cultivate and develop interests and social networks outside of work long before you retire. It’s hard to jump in and create this type of scenario just when you retire. Transitioning to retirement is easier if you have a network in place and interests that will support you and sustain you as you navigate this change.

  • Talk to your family:

Your family may offer good advice and can make important observations as long as you involve them in the discussion well in advance. Getting more involved with grandchildren, helping them in their lives, planning with a spouse how you will spend time together - all of this can be crucial to a successful and happy retirement.

  • Think of becoming a volunteer:

Volunteering is not just about finding something to do. Volunteering can give you a sense of purpose, make you happier and there is now evidence that it might help you live longer and improve your brain health. It’s not for everyone, but for those retirees who do it, it’s enjoyable and fulfilling and also creates a new social network.

  • What has worked for you in your retirement? Can you share the activities that you found the most personally rewarding?

Brian Lawlor is a Professor of Old Age Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin.


Glossary

Social Capital: networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups (OECD, 2001).

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