May 26, 2023

Mental health awareness is critical before, after retirement

MADISON, Wis. – With millions of people retiring every year in the United States, mental health is an important factor to consider as retirees and their families face this experience.

As of mid-2021, about 50% of the U.S. population older than 55 is retired, according to the Pew Research Center. That number had been growing by about 1 million people per year between 2008 and 2019, but in 2020 and 2021, that number grew to 3.8 million people per year.

While many consider retirement an exciting milestone, there is a notable portion of this population that encounters mental health struggles. About 20% of the population older than 55 experiences some type of mental health concern, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with depression as the most common problem.

This population faces particular challenges as they approach retirement, said Alicia Ellison, nurse practitioner, psychiatry, UW Health, who has a doctorate in nursing practice, and who works specifically with patients who are later in life.

“Retirement is a major life change for people,” she said. “We live in a ‘working society’ where our work makes up so much of who we are, but with retirement that can get lost.”

In her practice, Ellison sees patients who have reached the need for clinical intervention, but by normalizing the process of retirement, people can achieve a more graceful transition and reduce the chances of needing to seek care for mental health challenges.

“We need to talk with one another about the process of aging, retiring and what life after work looks like,” she said.

There are things partners, families and friends can observe that might signal mental health struggles in their loved ones, Ellison said, including negative thoughts on retirement, isolating from others, articulating a lack of purpose or a rapid increase in drinking or drug use.

As people get closer to retirement, thankfully, there are steps to take to make the transition easier, according to Ellison, who is also the co-founder and co-director of the psychiatric nurse practitioner program at Edgewood College.

In addition to talking about it with others more regularly, people can encourage a positive, yet realistic view of this period in life, think about a plan for after retirement earlier in life, and engage in physical activities and leisurely hobbies, she said.

And, after retirement, there are activities and lifestyle choices that can boost mental health, like community involvement, engaging more with family and participating in intellectual or creative pursuits and continuing to stay active, Ellison said.

“Aging individuals still have so much to give and experience as they transition into retirement,” she said. “We find some of the most creative thinking and expression comes after people retire and age into later life.”