How to keep loneliness from ruining your retirement

How to keep loneliness from ruining your retirement

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?

Risk factors

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? 

Health consequences

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.

Fixes

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.

Be Intentional,

Joe

What are you afraid of?

What are you afraid of?

What are you afraid of?  Be honest. We all have stuff that scares us. Maybe it’s something big.  Maybe small.  Regardless of what it is, the outcome is often the same: Stasis.  Fear acts as a roadblock that keeps us from doing something.  Fear is often the great preserver of the status quo.  It keeps you from having that uncomfortable conversation with your spouse or friend.  It keeps you from going to the doctor.  Or asking for a raise. Or joining the gym.  Or dealing with an addiction.  Or moving to a new town.  Or changing jobs.  Or starting a business.  Or making new friends.  Or traveling. These fears, big and small, stop us in our tracks and the longer we allow them to persist, the more insurmountable they seem.

But here’s the thing. Almost every fear that you and I have—those things that have been holding us back for years and that are keeping us from the things that we genuinely want from life—can be overcome with a few seconds of uncomfortable action.  It reminds me of that quote from Matt Damon’s character in the movie We Bought a Zoo:

“Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage.  Just literally 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery and I promise you something great will come of it.”

This is true because fear isn’t something that persists for very long in the face of action.  Once you start, the fear subsides and you focus on the action at hand.  In that sense, inaction is much more uncomfortable than action because the fear and anxiety of inaction is a long-term state.  We marinate in it, sometimes for years.  Once you start, however, and push through the fear with a short burst of bravery, the fear subsides and your focus shifts to whatever it is that you’re doing.

I’m writing about this idea because I’ve had constant reminders about it on this trip.  When traveling, especially internationally, there are dozens of little fears that crop up.  Not being able to speak the language.  Driving a rental car in a strange city.  Figuring out the subway.  Those things can make you want to curl up in a ball in your hotel room and cry.  Fortunately, inaction isn’t really a choice.  Scared of driving?  Too bad.  You’ve got 100 cars behind you.  Subway make you nervous?  Unless you want to sleep at the airport, you’d better take a stab at it.  So you do.  And…hey…what do you know!  You figure it out.  Maybe you didn’t do it perfectly, but you survived.  You learned something and built a bit of confidence that you can keep in your back pocket for the next challenge.  More importantly, fear vanquished, you get to do the thing that you’ve been wanting to do.  String a bunch of those together and you have a life that is rewarding and untarnished by regret.

So I’ll ask again: What are you afraid of?  Whatever it is, you have a choice.  You can let it fester and keep you from the life you want or you can muster 20 seconds of bravery and take the first step toward resolution.  Choose the former and you’ll likely be miserable.  Choose the latter and you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. Good things are just on the other side of an impermanent barrier that can be breached with a few seconds of bravery. What are you waiting for?

“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better. What if they are a little coarse and you may get your coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice? Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.”    ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Next destination

I wrapped up my time in France yesterday and hopped an early morning flight to Naples, Italy.  From there I came to a little seaside town on the Amalfi Coast called Positano.  I’ve got four days here with a few concentrated on work and a few for activities (e.g. visiting Pompei and Vesuvius, hiking the Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods), etc.).  I’ll get a post up soon filling you in on my time in France.  Thanks for following along!

Be Intentional,

Joe

A Long Life vs. A Good Life

A Long Life vs. A Good Life

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see an article about how to live a longer life.  Drink coffee.  Don’t drink coffee.  Eat a paleo diet.  Be a vegetarian.  Do yoga. Meditate.  Do this to avoid Alzheimer’s.  Do that to minimize the risk of prostate cancer.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be healthy and live a long life, but what about actually having a life worth living?  Isn’t that more important?

A long life is good, but only if you’re healthy, happy and fulfilled.  So try to get your recommended fruit and veg, but don’t forget why you want those extra years to begin with.  Is it just to be alive?  To check off another year on planet earth?  Or is it to actually use those years to live a meaningful life?  Of course, everyone would say it’s the latter, but our actions don’t always reflect that. We procrastinate.  We don’t take our plans and dreams seriously.  We put things off until “someday.”  How can we do better?  Below are a few practical ways to add life to your years (rather than just years to your life).  Each is punctuated with a quote taken from the essay On the Shortness of Life by Seneca.

Spend

Carl Sandburg once said “Time is the coin of your life.  It is the only coin you have and only you can determine how it will be spent.”  A few extra years would be great, but how have you spent the last 10 years?  How are you spending this year?  How about today?  Stop wishing for more time and start actually using the time you have wisely.

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.”

Simplify

Don’t spend your precious time and money pursuing and maintaining a lifestyle that isn’t what you want.  That feels pointless and toilsome.  Decide what’s important to you.  Invest in that.  Cut out everything else.

“It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.”

Start

One of the biggest unintended consequences of “planning for retirement” is that it trains us to procrastinate.  Yes, it’s important to save for your future, but that doesn’t mean ignoring your present.  Life is meant to be lived.  If you’re trading the very best of your present for some uncertain future, you’re doing it wrong.  Plan for your future.  Make the most of your present.  Those things aren’t mutually exclusive.

“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

Be Intentional,

Joe

Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.

Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.

In life, we often have the option to do things the easy way or the hard way.  We can choose between the wide and narrow roads.  Paradoxically, choosing the easy way out often leads to a hard life while choosing the hard way often leads to an easy life.

Narrow, difficult decisions that require discipline and sacrifice usually pay off by leading us into a place where the road is wide and our options are plentiful.  On the other hand, taking the wide, easy path often ends up funneling you down a narrower and narrower chute until all good options are gone and all that is left are painful consequences.  In short:

Easy choices, hard life.  Hard choices, easy life.

Nowhere is this more true than with our finances.  We all stand at a fork in the road when making decisions on things like debt, saving, investing and giving.  Path A is wide and well worn.  Reach for that credit card.  Try to keep up with the Joneses.  Feed those desires.  The other path, as Robert Frost might say, seems a bit grassy and in wont of wear. Live within your means.  Give generously.  Save for the future.  Steward those resources wisely.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my advice on finances (and pretty much everything else) encourages you to take the road less traveled.  Sure, doing so will be difficult and take discipline, but it will ultimately lead you to a place of peace, security and comfort.

Be Intentional,

Joe

Why do so many people Unretire?

Why do so many people Unretire?

Retirees are Unretiring in record numbers.  You read that right.  After decades of work and anticipation, people are entering retirement only to reverse course and head back to work.  The RAND corporation conducted a survey in 2017 and found that almost 40 percent of workers over age 65 had previously been retired.  That’s a lot of people.  What’s going on here?  Why do so many retirees unretire and how can you avoid the same fate?

It’s not usually about money

First, let’s look at what is NOT driving the trend: It’s not usually about money.  The research shows that most of the people returning to work did so not because they didn’t save enough or because they experienced some sort of financial shock, but for other reasons.  What were those reasons?

It’s about choice…

The study found that for many people, returning to work was planned.  For example, they quit their full-time job to go part-time or they quit a high-stress job to take something more low key.  This likely explains why younger retirees return to work in much higher numbers.  They retire early with every intention of re-engaging in the workforce under different circumstances.

…And opportunity…

It’s no secret that people are living longer, healthier lives.  That, along with the fact that jobs are less manual than in years past, can open the door to longer careers.  In other words, returning to work in your 60s and 70s is an opportunity that exists today that didn’t necessarily exist when most job opportunities consisted of things like mining coal and riveting together skyscrapers.  The data reflect this.  Those with less education and more manual jobs tend to unretire at lower rates than those with more education and less physical jobs.  Still, choice and opportunity don’t entirely explain the trend.

…But also about disappointment and unmet expectations

If you retire and then return to work by choice or to take advantage of a great opportunity, that’s a win.  You want to do it and you’re able to.  Where unretiring is a problem is when you either have to because of the money or you decide to because you find retirement unfulfilling.   Unfortunately, the latter group accounts for a large number of Unretirees.  They have their finances in order, but retirement is less fulfilling than expected.  This problem can often be traced back to poor planning.  If you don’t do a good job figuring out what’s next, you’ll likely drift back to what’s familiar.  How can you make your transition successful?  Here are several thoughts and takeaways that I had, both from the Rand study and from my 20 plus years of working with retirees.

Takeaways and Applications

Answer the right question.  The retirement question most people seem intent on answering is “How am I going to pay for it?” That’s an important question, but retirement is more than just a math problem.  In my opinion, we spend too much time thinking about how to get there (math) and not enough time thinking about what we’re going to do once we arrive (meaning). If you focus solely on finances, you risk having a retirement that is cash rich and lifestyle poor.  Not surprisingly, that can be unsatisfying and can cause you to miss work, if only because it added structure and purpose to your day.  To avoid that fate, put some serious effort into defining what you want to do during retirement.

Don’t just subtract.  If all you do is subtract things—work, obligations, commitments—you will create a void in your life. That void can open you to self-doubt, regret, lack of purpose and boredom. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you take something out, you need to replace it with something else.  If you subtract your career, you need to add in other things that will provide purpose, challenge and social engagement.

Avoid the temptation to do nothing.  The temptation to do nothing can feel pretty strong after years of drinking from the fire hose of daily life. Unfortunately, doing nothing is not a good strategy for long-term fulfillment. It can be rejuvenating for a while, but it will get boring.

Your goal should not be to do nothing. It should be to do what excites you. If you’re feeling spent and burnt out after 40 years of work, by all means take some time off and recharge your batteries. But after that, you need a plan that will keep you challenged and provide meaning and fulfillment.

Practice.  Not surprisingly, the better you are at something, the more you tend to like it.  How likely is it that you’ll be really good at retirement on Day 1? Not very likely, right? You’re going from something that you know how to do really well (i.e. your job) to something that feels awkward and unnatural (e.g. travel, hobbies, more time with family and friends).  There is a learning curve that can be frustrating and intimidating.  But the more you practice, the better you’ll get and the more you’ll enjoy it.  Acknowledge ahead of time that it will likely feel a bit unnatural, but keep practicing until you improve.  Ideally, you should start this practice before you even retire.  Start early with whatever portion of your time you control and practice, practice, practice.

Become an intern.  This summer I have a young man interning with me.  He has an interest in the financial industry, but wants to get some exposure to it before jumping into a 30 year career.  Working as an intern will give him a chance to learn about the financial field, gain some experience, develop skills, make connections and evaluate his interests and abilities in a hands-on way.  Why not do something similar before you jump into a 30 year retirement?  Chances are that you know some people who are already retired.  Ask them if you can shadow them for a bit.  Spend some time talking to them about the experience.  What is going well?  What took them by surprise.  What advice can they give you?

Consider partial retirement.  Remember that work is a totally acceptable option in retirement.  Maybe you don’t want to work 60 hours per week, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t want to find some sort of meaningful work where you can use your skills, make a difference and have some social interaction.  If that’s the case, consider partial retirement.

Consider mini-retirements.  With traditional retirement, you defer the good stuff to that 20-30 year period at the end of life when you have more time and money.  The idea of mini-retirements takes some of that 20-30 year period (say 5 years), breaks it up into 1-3 month chunks and spreads it out over your working years.  A mini-retirement is longer than a vacation, but shorter than…well…retirement.  As you might imagine, there are a number of benefits to taking these extended periods off.  You have time to actually experience a place rather than just visiting the touristy spots.  It allows you to enjoy some of the benefits of retirement while you’re still young and healthy.  It rejuvenates you and can help you come back to work more engaged and more productive.  For more on mini-retirements, read thisthis and this.

Retire to something, not from something.  All the previous points can be summarized by this: Retire to something, not from something.  Retiring to escape a job is a recipe for misery and discontent. Retiring to pursue things that you are passionate about is a recipe for meaning and fulfillment.

Be intentional,

Joe

Pain + Reflection = Progress

Pain + Reflection = Progress

Retirement often involves making important decisions with incomplete information when the stakes are high.  You won’t have everything figured out on Day 1.  More likely, you’ll arrive at your ideal retirement through a process of trial and error.  You’ll make mistakes.  That’s unavoidable.  The important thing is that you learn from them.  How best to do that?

Ray Dalio is an investment legend on par with people like Warren Buffett.  He owns Bridgewater, the largest hedge fund in the world.  Ray has a saying:

Pain + Reflection = Progress

In other words, pain is a good instructor and a strong signal.  According to Dalio, success is nice, but it just causes you to do more of the same.  You don’t learn much from it.  Pain, on the other hand, has a lot to teach you.  Whenever you make a mistake about anything, you feel some sort of pain.  There’s a message in that pain somewhere.  It’s hard to see while you’re going through it, but if you reflect on it once it’s over, you’ll probably be able to see what that message is.

As you experiment with retirement, write down these pain points and think about them.  What caused the pain?  What should I learn from it?  What would I do differently in the future?  If you do that, you’ll come out with a principle that relates to the people, places, activities or philosophy of your retirement.  That principle is the progress in the equation above.  It’s the newfound wisdom that gets you a bit closer to your ideal life and retirement.  The more you experiment, learn and iterate, the better your odds of having a happy, meaningful retirement.  In some ways, you might even learn to enjoy the pain as an indication of progress.  Again, Ray Dalio:

“Encountering pains and figuring out the lessons they were trying to give me became sort of a game to me.  The more I played it, the better I got at it, the less painful those situations became, and the more rewarding the process of reflecting, developing principles, and then getting rewards for using those principles became.  I learned to love my struggles, which I suppose is a healthy perspective to have…”