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.
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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, Massachusetts.
“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, a too-heavy workload, a rigid schedule — that they don’t fully consider the benefits they get from working. Or they may be …….