Why am I so unhappy in retirement? How to recognize and avoid retirement depression

A couple relaxing in a suburban garden

Retirement may be the goal post you’ve been eyeing for a few years.

You saved up and you’re pondering a trip to Costa Rica or Alaska. Besides traveling, you have a few other ideas for how to fill your time: woodworking, pickleball, maybe a kitchen renovation.

Weeks or even months after you say goodbye to it all – the team meetings, the projects, evaluations and deadlines — you could be thrilled with this new phase in life. Or maybe not.

It could be that retirement ends up being a troubling time. You might not know what to do with the swath of free time. Without structure in your days, you may find yourself oversleeping, staying up late or possibly drinking more because you no longer have early morning obligations.

Surprising as it might seem, retirement can be a period where some people develop symptoms of depression. Transitioning from a structured life with 40-plus hours of weekly commitments to suddenly having no schedule at all can be a significant change. You may not have prepared for the freefall into so much free time.

Risk factors for retirement depression:

  • Having dealt with depression earlier in your life
  • Being single or living alone
  • Struggling financially
  • Experiencing an unplanned or mandatory retirement

Retirement may also be harder for those whose identity and sense of purpose is tied to their profession, such as clergy, physicians and veterinarians.

A lot of people plan financially for their retirement but may not give much thought to what they’ll do after they retire. At first, you may feel retirement is one continuous vacation of sleeping in and having very little on your to-do list.

But those habits can’t be maintained forever, and the honeymoon period ends for many people after several months to years. It’s important for us to set goals, have purpose and maintain structure in our lives. Extended periods without these elements can pose challenges to our sense of self-worth.

Older adults are also more likely to experience depression without typical symptoms of depression such as guilt, sadness and loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy, although these symptoms are possible.

Symptoms of depression more commonly seen in older adults:

  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Worsening of chronic pain and physical symptoms (digestive issues, headaches) not linked to a medical condition
  • Difficulty with memory, concentration and clarity of thinking
  • Problems with attention
  • Social withdrawal

If you find yourself depressed in retirement, therapy can help you identify negative thought patterns and behaviors that may be contributing to your depression and help develop new ways of coping.

When depressive symptoms become severe or meaningfully impair function, a psychiatrist may prescribe medication for depression.

Tips for preventing retirement depression

Guarding against depression in retirement sometimes requires planning. I counsel my patients who are looking toward retirement to consider what they’ll do with their free time following the big going-away party. Filling your time doesn’t mean you have to go overboard and get another full or part time job. But adding structure and getting together with friends and/or family members on a regular basis can help.

Here are some ways to do that:

  1. Maintain small routines such as household chores
  2. Be consistent in your sleep schedule
  3. Schedule regular pleasurable activities weekly such as dinner with a friend or family member.
  4. Exercise at least 150 minutes a week.
  5. Consider a new hobby or learn something new

If you or a loved one may be struggling with depression, ask your primary doctor about treatment options and a possible referral to a mental health specialist. You should be able to enjoy your hard-earned retirement. If depression is preventing you from doing so, help is available.

Help for mental health conditions

Ohio State offers personalized, compassionate care for your mental health concerns.

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