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Mental health in retirement: what you can do to stay healthy and happy

Monday 13 August 2018

A woman stands in the kitchen holding her grandson and laughing.
Many people report that spending time with children helps them ease stress and feel happier. Do you like to spend time with kids?

Retirement can be exciting – coming to the end of your working career with a calendar now open for relaxation and enjoyment is a time many people look forward to during younger years.

But the prospect of retirement can also be daunting. Some new retirees worry that their days will have less purpose now that they’re not at work, that they’ll be bored, or that they’ll miss the social connection they had with their co-workers or clients. These concerns are just as legitimate as the excitement of winding up work.

Below are some pointers for maintaining mental wellness during retirement and information on why it’s important to proactively look after yourself during this time.

Mental wellbeing in older people

Mental health conditions can affect anyone at any time, and can develop after a life change like starting retirement. Beyondblue says that around 10 to 15% of older Australians experience depression and 10% experience anxiety, with the rate of depression climbing to 35% for people living in residential aged care.

The good news is that there are ways you can support your mental wellbeing, and help is available to get you back on your feet if you hit a bump in the road.

Finding purpose, looking after your physical health, making connections, feeling safe and accessing support are all key elements in maintaining mental wellbeing. The tips below contain ideas to help you find these during retirement.

1. Focus on your physical health

During retirement, you might find you have more time on your hands to really take care of your body. This is good news, because your physical health and your mental wellbeing are connected. The Federal Government’s Head to Health website shows how exercising, eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep and even drinking enough water can all affect our mood and energy levels.

Has it been a while since you tried a new sport or type of physical activity? How often do you attempt a new recipe? Just because you’re getting on in decades doesn’t mean you can’t try new things. Investigate a sports club that has activities for your age group, or pick your favourite cuisine and make a new dish.

If you’re looking for some guidance on where to start with healthier living, head to Healthier. Happier. for recipes and workout plans. You might also benefit from taking part in the Get Healthy program, a free service that provides you with a health coach to help you make healthy lifestyle changes.

Worrying about your health

One thing that can affect mental wellbeing as you age is worrying about your physical health. Depending on your age and gender, there are free programs designed to detect early signs of serious diseases in the body, including breast screening for women aged over 50, cervical screening for women until they are 74, and bowel cancer screening for men and women aged 50-74.  Participating in these programs can help ease your mind if you’re worried about getting sick.

If you have any concerns about your physical health or you’ve noticed something has changed in your body, talk to your GP about it rather than letting it sit on your mind. And if you find your worries are persistent, talk to your GP about a plan to help manage them – getting older doesn’t have to mean you live with fear about your body.

A man straps on his helmet, ready to ride his bike.

2. Explore what gives you purpose

Having purpose is really important for mental wellbeing. It gives you a reason to get up in the morning and makes your days feel meaningful. There a lot of ways to feel you have purpose – just because you’re not going to your day job any more doesn’t mean you can’t have purpose in your life.

You feel like you have purpose when you do what’s called ‘purposeful activities’. Purposeful activities help you feel like you’re contributing something to the world, whether that contribution is just for you, for your family, friends, community or the broader population. What counts as a purposeful activity will be different for everyone.

Finding your purpose can be fun! If you’re not sure what gives you purpose now that you’re not at work, try some different things to see how they make you feel.

Give these activities a go and see if they add purpose to your life:

Stretch your creative muscles

Whether it’s painting, drawing, dancing, writing or building – find a creative activity that brings you joy. You might love the challenge of picking up a new skill, or return to a hobby you loved when you were a child.

Creative activities can allow you to access the state of ‘flow’, where time seems to stop and your full concentration is absorbed by what you’re doing. Studies show that people who engage in activities that allow them to experience this flow state report feeling more satisfied and happy.

Spend time with kids

Retired teachers might like to steer clear of little ones for a while, but some retirees find spending time with young people to be rejuvenating. If you’ve got young family members, finding activities that you can do together might provide you with a new perspective.

If you’re not close with any young Queenslanders, other ways of connecting with younger generations include volunteering with organisations that help kids in need, like The Pyjama Foundation.

Volunteer your time and skills, or even just your smile

Volunteering is a way you can find purpose by being of help to others. Volunteering can take many forms: from using your skills to help run a non-profit organisation, to assisting fundraising events for a local school or simply visiting the residents of a nursing home to brighten their day with a friendly chat.

There are a lot of ways to volunteer your time and expertise. You might contact a local organisation that takes volunteers to offer up your skills, or visit Volunteering Queensland for opportunities in your area.

Get into the garden

There are so many positives to developing your green thumb, from being able to grow your own produce, to doing your bit to help out the bees or manage the effects of climate change. Gardening can also be good for your mental and physical health.

Whether you’ve got rolling acres, raised garden beds or just a few pot plants on the veranda, finding your green thumb is a great way to work on a project where your progress is visible over time. If you don’t have a space to garden in at home, you might find a community garden near you to work in.

3. Connect with the outside world

Connection with others, be they your family and friends, with the community, with pets, or with nature, is a vital part of the human experience. Developing healthy relationships with others can lower levels of anxiety and depression, and raise self-esteem.

When you retire from work, you might feel like you’ve lost a lot of connection all at once. Finding ways to connect with others beyond work can be an important way to promote your mental wellbeing. If you’re stuck with where to start when it comes to socialising, try some of these tips:

  • reconnect with old friends using social media
  • make a weekly date to see a loved one or friend for a meal or a cup of tea and a chat
  • visit the local library or community centre and ask what regular activities they run
  • join a casual sports team
  • join a creative or hands-on activity group like a craft group, choir or men’s shed
  • take part in cultural activities by attending festivals, plays or concerts
  • if you belong to a place of worship or want to explore your spirituality, attend events or services at your place of worship.

Connection doesn’t have to just be with people. You might find a broader sense of connection by getting out and about in nature, or by spending time with a pet.

4. Sense of safety

Feeling safe, stable and secure is really important for your mental wellbeing. This can include feeling safe at home and in your neighbourhood, feeling financially secure and feeling supported within your close relationships and your community.

When you feel safe, you can relax better and feel free to live your life as you want. Head to Health has resources about how to help you if you’re not feeling safe and secure.

A woman sits at a coffee shop table, coffees in front of her and her husband.

5. Seeking support

Mental health conditions like anxiety or depression can affect anyone at any time. It’s important to know that these conditions are health conditions, like catching a cold, not a weakness or character flaw. The good news is they can be managed and treated by health professionals.

If you’ve been feeling sad, worried, stressed, angry, numb or just ‘not yourself’ for two weeks or more, or if you would like extra support managing your mental wellbeing, speak to your GP about how you’re feeling. They might be able to help you, or might refer you to a psychologist or counsellor. Sometimes just telling someone about how you’re feeling is the first step towards feeling better.

Beyondblue have resources to help you learn more about mental health conditions, including an anxiety and depression checklist and a section on their website just for older Australians. You can also find more information and resources on Health Direct, Head to Health and Sane Australia.

Last updated: 13 August 2018