Nan Anderson retired seven years ago from full-time work at a senior home care agency. At 78, the long-time Chicago resident still volunteers at local aging organizations and stays involved in the community.
“I grew up thinking, you retire at 65, you play for five years and you’re done,” said Anderson, who enjoys volunteering and attending folk music festivals and performances in her free time. “That’s not how it is anymore. It’s quite a different image than a few years ago.”
Whether an older adult enjoys a happy and satisfying retirement, and why, are questions of growing concern as thousands of baby boomers reach 65 every day. By 2060, the U.S. Census projects that the population of Americans 65 and older will reach 92 million, more than double the 43 million in 2012.
Further, how they age has important implications not only for themselves, but for the families and communities that support them through the aging process. Although factors such as personality, income, marriage status and geographic location play a role in how people react to retirement, experts say staying engaged is a key factor to healthy aging.
“We know that older adults who are active, not sedentary and have things to occupy their brains are less depressed,” said Nancy Molitor, a clinical psychologist in North Suburban Wilmette and an assistant professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern who has worked with older retirees for the past 10 years.
Although just 8 percent of adults ages 50 and older reported current depression, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found, nearly 20 percent of adults ages 55 and older suffer from at least one type of mental health concern. Among these concerns, anxiety and depression were the most common problems that could lead to declines in physical, mental and social functioning.
A major life change such as retirement can cause depression if older adults do not find new ways to fulfill themselves.
“Retirement is a normal part of life,” Molitor said. “It’s a phase of life, but people enter into it in very different places and expectations and with very different strengths and weaknesses. It’s like anything else in human behavior: no size fits all.”
Certain lifestyles are more conducive to a satisfying retirement. A French study that was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Boston in July found that older adults should maintain intellectual and mental stimulation and engagement throughout retirement to help combat isolation and depression.
Living an active lifestyle for older adults means more than just working, according to the American Association of Retired Persons. As nearly 90 percent of adults ages 65 and older want to remain in their own homes and communities for as long as possible, the organization found that giving back through volunteer services and being able to live independently are important factors to aging and retirement.
“The usual ways they connected with people aren’t so easy anymore,” said Lisa Campbell, a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Park Ridge-based Willow Wellness Center, an organization that offers therapy for loss, depression and life transition issues. “There’s some separation with people who they used to work with. They’re on the outside and they can often feel disoriented and you need to settle into a different role.”
Mary Avellone, a Chicago clinical psychologist, said part of the challenge after retirement is redefining one’s identity.
“Have a job, apart from being a parent, those are the two ways people in our society have to create an identity,” said Avellone, who has worked with older adults for the past 20 years. “If retirement simply means I’m not working anymore, then there’s less identification with what one did.”
To help ease the transition, Campbell said planning for life after retirement helps her clients.
“People take time to plan out their finances, but it’s really important to think about emotions,” said Campbell, who specializes in working with adults ages 50 and older. “Oftentimes people have a lot of expectations about retirement that aren’t realistic or that their expectations don’t match what’s happening. You have to figure out what to do with your time and energy.”
Campbell, who founded the Willow Wellness Center with her husband in 2004, said she helps her clients who are struggling with retirement by discussing their interests and hobbies and then channeling those ideas into activities, part-time work or volunteer opportunities.
Similarly Molitor said she recommends that her clients start planning for life after retirement as early as possible so they have a general idea of what to expect. She also said creating a five- to 10-year plan can help with combatting isolation and depression.
Before retiring, Anderson, who lives by herself in Evanston, said she planned out activities she wanted to participate in and sought out part-time work opportunities.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time in the ‘third age,’” said Anderson, who thinks the word retirement will become irrelevant as people continue to stay active and work part-time. “There are more opportunities and people have come to recognize that. I continue to learn. I can say no. I’ve become more mentally sharp since I’ve retired.”
A 2009 Pew Research Center study, which reflects Anderson’s views, found that nearly 60 percent of adults 65 and older surveyed said they feel younger than their actual age.
The North Shore Village, an organization that serves Evanston and Wilmette residents 60 years and older, offers programs and activities that help older adults age in place, such as trips to grocery stores and shows, exercise classes, and discussion groups.
In Illinois, there are currently three operating Villages, as well as more than 85 nationwide, that offer similar programs and activities to older adults, according to the Village to Village Network and a study by The State University of New Jersey’s School of Social Work.
“The biggest part of the Village experience is the social engagement,” said Helen Gagel, the Village’s executive director. “People are happier being part of this community and changing their lives.”
Gagel, 67, who has headed the 300-member organization since 2009, said she will retire in a few weeks. As a long-time Evanston resident, Gagel said she was motivated to retire from full-time work after one of her friends was diagnosed with cancer 10 years into retirement.
Although Gagel said she has not had much time to plan for her own retirement, she said she has sought out part-time work opportunities and will continue to participate in book groups and sing with her women’s choir.
“You have to do some planning, but also be open to change,” Gagel said. “You kind of have to put yourself out there and get a good understanding of what the organization needs and see if it will be a good fit for you.”
Like the Village movement, Cantata, a Brookfield-based organization that helps seniors ages 50 and older stay active and age in place, also offers continuing adult education classes, such as computer and technology training, cooking, exercise and fitness, and language courses.
George Columbus, who manages the program, said the most popular classes are the iPad training course and the exercise classes. Although there is no age requirement, Columbus said most students are in their 70s, and some even enroll in their 90s.
“They acquire the skills they need to continue to live independently and live their best lives,” said Columbus, who has managed educational and volunteer services at Cantata for about two years. “I not only think it’s imperative that they maintain their quality of life, but they realize it too. They seek out opportunities like this to stay active both physically and mentally.”
In addition to local Villages and Cantata’s educational programs, Gagel said local senior centers, as well as city services and the United Way offer various social activities and volunteer opportunities.
Even though local experts said they don’t see a prevalence of retirement life-planning services offered, they expect more of these niche programs to gain in popularity.
“Retirement shouldn’t just be about your job, it should be about your lifestyle,” said Molitor, who has served as a past president of the Illinois Psychological Association. “There’s a niche there and there’s a gap there for a person to have this type of discussion with them.”
Although older adults may plan for and stay active during retirement, local experts said there are other factors, sometimes out of their control, that can affect mental health after retirement, such as economic status.
A 2009 Pew study found that the average retirement age is 62. However, a 2010 Pew study found that 35 percent of adults ages 62 and older who are still working delayed their retirement because of the recession.
Campbell said there is a major difference between older adults who choose to retire and those who are either forced to retire or who are laid off from their jobs unexpectedly.
Similarly, Gagel said she sometimes worries about her finances after retirement, which is why she will continue to work part-time.
Other demographic factors, such as marriage, gender, geographic location and physical health play key roles in the relationship between retirement and mental health, experts said.
For example, a 2007 study by the University of Michigan found that spouses tend to plan their retirement together, so that if one spouse is still working, the other is less likely to retire.
Molitor said there are gender differences in people’s reactions to retirement. While many of her male clients stay home more often and become interested in cooking and gardening, her female clients are more adventurous and seek out volunteer opportunities and enroll in exercise classes.
The geographic location of where older adults choose to retire also contributes to how they react, Molitor said.
“Having a community of people of your age and your family around is probably going to promote healthier aging and less depression,” Molitor said. “There’s all different ways to age in place in your home.”
Anderson and Gagel agreed they would not move to another city to retire because they are both well-connected and active in their own communities.
Physical health also plays a major role in depression after retirement, Avellone said. Although planning is useful, Avellone said health crises increase exponentially with age and can trigger depression if older adults are not able to be physically mobile.
Variances in personality often determine how people react to retirement, Molitor and Campbell said.
“If somebody has been happy, engaged and connected in their lives, they’re going to be happy, engaged and connected in retirement,” Campbell said. “It’s a continuation of one’s life.”
Additionally, Gagel said the opposite could also happen.
“If they didn’t have ties to the community when they were younger and healthy,” she said, “where are they going to go now?”
All of these factors should be considered, including demographics, socio-economic status, education and personality variances, to measure how retirement affects mental health, Molitor said.
Similarly, Campbell said understanding that retirement holds different meanings to various groups of people and individuals would also help in more accurately illustrating the relationship between retirement and depression.
“There’s a lot more complexity because a lot of people who don’t fit the traditional mode of retirement, they might be working part-time or doing a volunteer job,” Campbell said. “There’s no generalizing about retirement. There’s even some talk about the term ‘retirement,’ whether that’s appropriate or not anymore.”
After seven years of retirement, Anderson said though she’s content overall, she has good and bad days.
Gagel also said she anticipates that life will go on as it always had even after she retires from full-time work in a few weeks.
“We’ll know when retirement changes when AARP changes their name,” she said. “I see myself being able to finish a book in a week’s time instead of three, get more exercise … spend more time with my family and friends: Just live life at a somewhat less frenetic pace. It’s not as though you stop being who you are when you retire.”