Quick summary: Loneliness and depression are growing problems with the baby boom generation. In this article I talk about why that is, the problems that it causes and a few ideas on how to fix it.
Loneliness is the sadness you feel when there’s a gap (in quality or quantity) between how much social interaction you have and how much you want to have. Unfortunately, it’s a growing problem among retirees. According to the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, loneliness affects between 25% and 60% of all older adults. The baby boomer generation reported the highest levels of loneliness and isolation. This is a serious issue because it not only affects quality of life, but can also have severe health consequences. Why are retirees particularly susceptible to loneliness (and depression) and how can you keep it from ruining your retirement?
As you age, there are a number of things that can affect the quality and quantity of your relationships. Death. Divorce. Leaving the workforce. Moving. Physical changes, like arthritis, can affect your mobility and keep you homebound. Common ailments like hearing loss can make it harder to engage socially. Women are especially vulnerable because they live longer and are therefore more likely to be impacted by one or more of the previous risk factors. What are some of the problems that loneliness causes?
Loneliness affects more than just your happiness and quality of life. It increases the risk of depression, cognitive decline and dementia. It weakens the immune system. It increases blood pressure. In short, it is linked to poor health and early death. So let’s re-cap. Loneliness is more common among older people and the side-effects are no bueno. How can you keep it from ruining your retirement? I put several ideas below.
Work on your social circles. A large study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University found that those with greater social connection had a 50% lower risk of early death. Retirement is an amazing time, but it’s also a time where your social network can undergo serious change. Some of those are by choice (e.g. leaving work, relocating). Some not (e.g. death of a close friend or spouse). Either way, you need to be very intentional about making and maintaining relationships.
Use technology to maintain your independence. Loss of independence can have a huge impact on social interaction. If you can’t drive, you can’t meet a friend for coffee. Thankfully, there’s Uber. If you can’t hear very well, you’re unlikely to attend social functions or join groups or organizations that require you to interact and converse with others. Thankfully, hearing aid technology has improved dramatically. Take advantage of it. I could give a hundred more examples. Unfortunately, some people are reluctant to use these technologies because it’s like admitting that they’re “old.” That’s nonsense. We all grow old. We all experience health changes. Don’t let stubbornness or pride prevent you from using technology to improve your quality of life.
Consider senior housing, an assisted living facility or CCRC. People understandably want to age in place and stay at home. It’s familiar. It gives a sense of independence. I get it. But if your physical limitations mean that your home becomes a place of isolation, maybe it would be better to move into a facility that is designed to provide social interaction, regular activities and assistance with issues that get harder as you age. People in these types of facilities report being happier and having higher levels of physical, social and emotional wellbeing. Most clients I’ve worked with over the years have viewed a move into one of these facilities as a positive, even if they were reluctant at first. In fact, I moved into one myself to see what it was like. You can read more about that here: So…I moved into an assisted living facility. Here’s how it went.
Volunteer. I mentioned this in my article last week, but it bears repeating. Several large studies show that volunteering can have positive effects on your health and well-being. One reason it’s so good for you is because it provides lots of social interaction. Not only that, but doing good deeds can reduce stress and lower cortisol levels which can strengthen your immune and cardiovascular systems and ultimately lengthen your life. Use some of your extra time during retirement to volunteer. Chances are it will make you healthier and happier.
Evaluate social media use. Sometimes social media is a helpful way to stay connected with your friends and supplement your in-person interactions. Sometimes it’s a vortex of negativity that breeds discontent and FOMO (fear of missing out). If it’s making you happier and more connected, great! If not, don’t be afraid delete your profiles and invest your energy elsewhere.
Join a local group related to your hobbies or interests. Like to garden? See if there’s a local gardening club. Like to golf or play pickleball? Join a league. Like to dance? There’s a group for that. Like to travel? Consider group trips through organizations like Road Scholar. As with most things, hobbies are better when you can add others into the mix for friendship and fun.
Entertain. Everyone wants and needs social interaction, but too often they just sit at home waiting for the phone to ring. They’d jump at the chance if someone took the initiative. You can be that someone. As our daughter has gotten older, we’ve invested a little money in our house so it will be a place where her and her friends will want to hang out. I’m guessing many of you did the same thing for your kids. There’s no rule against doing that same thing in retirement. Be the person that has dinner parties, back yard barbeques or movie nights. Take the initiative and you’ll likely have plenty of people excited to participate.
Get professional help. If you’re lonely or depressed, get some professional help. There’s no shame in that. I’m not a doctor, but I have had several close friends and family members who have struggled with loneliness, anxiety or depression. In each case they sought help (counseling and/or medication) and saw drastic improvements. For some reason, there is a stigma associated with mental health in the U.S. No one blinks an eye when someone seeks treatment for cancer or diabetes, but there is reluctance to treat depression like the disease that it is. There are a number of effective treatments. “Cheer up!” is not one of them. If you need help, get help.
If you have any other thoughts or ideas, feel free to share them in the comments section. Thanks for reading.