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
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.
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
Are you trying to take better care of yourself this year? Great! We enjoy having you around. Here are 12 simple ways to be healthier, both now and in retirement.
Forgive. Researchers have discovered a link between
forgiveness and physical health. One
study showed that people who forgive have fewer coronary problems than people
who hold grudges. Other studies show
that those who forgive have less anger, less depression, decreased anxiety and
more hope for the future. The research also
shows that forgiveness improves your mood and makes you more optimistic. Don’t let old wounds fester. Forgive and move on.
Volunteer. Several large studies show that volunteering can have positive effects on your
health and well-being. 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 in retirement to
volunteer. Chances are it will make you
healthier and happier.
Find purpose and meaning. Studies show that when you feel like your life has purpose and meaning, you will experience less stress (and the negative health effects it produces), you’ll be better able to cope with challenges and you’ll be more inclined to take better care of yourself. Studies also show that having purpose makes people more likely to be physically active and more likely to use preventative health services like getting a cholesterol check or prostate exam. Looking for ways to find purpose and meaning? Read this: 15 Practical ways to live a purposeful life.
Get rid of belly fat. A recent study published in the British
Journal of Nutrition showed a strong correlation between belly fat and
cognitive abilities as you age. Those
with higher levels of belly fat performed worse on cognitive tests and they
were also more likely to develop diabetes or have a heart attack.
Eat less. Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “You can’t
outrun your fork.” If you’re trying to
lose the belly fat mentioned above, focus on how much you eat rather than just
exercise. You need to burn about 3,500
calories to lose a pound. Most people
could trim 500 calories per day if they shrunk their portion size or cut back
on snacking. That would result in a
pound per week of weight loss. To burn
the same calories running, you’d need to run about 5 miles per day or 35 miles
per week. Exercise is good, but most of
us aren’t running an ultra-marathon every week, so watch the Ben and Jerry’s
Retire sooner rather
than later. According to research
done by the National Bureau of Economic Research, retiring can improve your
overall happiness and health. The
research found that life satisfaction improves immediately for retirees and
their health improves gradually over a period of years.
Retire later rather
than sooner. There are other studies
that show that retiring later (after 65) may extend your life. I suspect this
has to do with the quality of your pre-retirement life. If you have a fulfilling career, staying in
the workforce can help you stay socially and mentally engaged and reduce the
risk of certain diseases. If you hate
your job and have plenty of friends outside of work, retiring sooner (as
mentioned in #6) might provide more benefits.
carries a number of benefits. It reduces
stress, anxiety and blood pressure. It
improves self-awareness and can help you sleep better. It helps you live more in the present. It can improve emotional health and reduce
age related memory loss. There are
several apps that can help you with meditation, including Calm and Headspace.
Don’t smoke. This one pretty much goes without saying.
Get enough sleep. The research on sleep has gotten pretty
compelling. Most adults need between 7
and 9 hours of sleep per night. Getting
enough sleep can strengthen your immune system, help you maintain a healthy
weight and help reduce your risk of serious health problems like diabetes and
heart disease. It can also improve your
mood and help you to get along well with others, which will help with # 11.
Work on your relationships. Retirement is a risky time for
relationships. Death can take a spouse
or close friend. Leaving work might
alter key relationships or social interaction. Friends might retire and move away. Those are all bad, because loneliness is
linked to poor health and early death.
In fact, loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking about 15
cigarettes per day. The takeaway? Invest in friendships. Invest in your family. Work on your relationship with your
spouse. Being lonely and isolated can
Exercise. We all know that exercise is important, but
recent research shows just how important it is to retirees. Not only does regular exercise reduce your
risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke, but a recent study by Cardiff
University showed that exercise was the single biggest influence on whether or
not study participants developed dementia.
If you want to maintain your faculties and have a healthy, active
retirement, then get regular exercise.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
The biggest fear BEFORE retirement is money. Pre-retirees worry about whether they’ve saved enough and if it will last. The biggest fear AFTER retirement, however, is health. Once retired, people worry most about getting or staying healthy so they can do the things they want and have a good quality of life. So, depending on where you fall on the retirement spectrum, health is either already a major concern of yours or it soon will be. With that in mind, a few studies caught my eye recently that I want to share with you because they can help boost your memory and extend your life.
How blood pressure affects your memory. A recent study by the National Institute of Health (NIH) examined whether more aggressive treatment of blood pressure could improve heart health. The results were so impressive that they stopped the study early and lowered the systolic blood pressure recommendations from 140 to 120 (and overall blood pressure recommendations to no more than 120/80). That more aggressive treatment reduced the risk of heart attack and stroke by nearly a third and death by almost 25 percent. They did further research to see if there were any other benefits and last week they announced that bringing the systolic below 120 also reduced the risk of cognitive impairment by about 19%. Cognitive impairment can lead to dementia which can lead to Alzheimer’s. The takeaway? Go get your blood pressure checked and if it’s above 120/80 you should talk to your doctor about bringing it down.
How relationships affect your health. While I was reading about the blood pressure study, another NIH study caught my eye. It summarized the growing body of evidence that shows how strong relationships and social connections can have a positive impact on your mental and physical health. Here are a few of the findings:
- Relationships have a cumulative impact on your health over time.
- People with weaker relationships and social connections are much more likely to die prematurely.
- Weak social ties are directly linked to a higher probability of developing conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer.
- Once you develop those conditions, you’re more likely to die from them if you have weak social ties. For example, heart patients with weak social connections are twice as likely to die of cardiac arrest than patients with strong social connections.
- Weak relationships also affect your immune function and your ability to recover from illness.
Why do relationships have such an impact? One reason is that behavior explains roughly 40% of premature mortality and relationships have a positive impact on our behaviors. You tend to take better care of yourself when you have people you care about. Another reason relationships help? Good relationships reduce stress and help foster a sense of meaning and purpose, both of which can help improve your mental and physical health. The takeaway? Work hard to foster meaningful relationships with friends and family. It can greatly impact your overall health, longevity and quality of life.
Money is an important ingredient to a successful retirement, but it’s meaningless if you’re not healthy enough to live life and do the things you want to do. So work hard to get your finances in order, but take these words from Emerson to heart: “The first wealth is health.”
Memento Mori. In English it means: “Remember that you will die.”
This has been a tough couple of weeks for me. My mom died very unexpectedly after a brief illness. On January 29th, I met her for dinner to celebrate her 67th birthday. We had a wonderful time. On February 5th, she was hospitalized with what turned out to be a terrible infection. On February 9th, she was gone.
One week, we were talking, laughing and telling stories over a nice meal. The next week, in the small hours of the morning, I sat by her hospital bed, held her hand and told her I loved her as I watched her last heartbeat move weakly across the monitor. I don’t have the words to convey how jarringly painful that was.
Still, I’m grateful. Grateful to have had her as my mom. Grateful to have always had a wonderful relationship with her. Grateful to have made some new memories just a week before she died. And yes, grateful for the reminder of mortality. The Memento Mori. One of my favorite verses is Psalm 39:4.
“Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.”
I like that verse because I often need the reminder. I know I’m going to die, but I don’t always live like I believe it. Maybe some of you are guilty of that too. If so, consider this your reminder.
If you died today, would you go in peace without a single regret? Or would you, like most of us, feel bad about the things left undone or unsaid? The relationship that needs mending? The affairs that need to be put in order? Sit with those thoughts this week. Write them down. And then act. You know what you should do. So do I. The challenge is to make sure that knowing transitions into doing and believing becomes behaving. You and I have been given an amazing gift: Today. Use it wisely.
There is a lot of uncertainty with healthcare lately, but two trends will likely continue: It will continue to get more expensive and you will continue to be responsible for more and more of the costs. Even with Medicare, it is estimated that the typical retiree will need between $200,000 and $400,000 to pay for health expenses during retirement. With that in mind you should seriously consider using a Health Savings Account (HSA) to help fund your retirement health expenses. You might be using one now, but if you’re like most, you’re not using it to its full potential. Let’s change that.
What is an HSA?
An HSA is a tax advantaged medical savings account available to people enrolled in high deductible health plans. Think of it as an IRA for your medical expenses. Unlike IRAs, however, HSA money is triple tax free: going in, as it grows and coming out. That is a huge advantage. The only caveat is that you need to spend the money on qualified health expenses or you’ll pay taxes and a penalty. The list of qualified expenses is rather long and even includes things like long-term care insurance premiums. Here are a few quick facts on HSAs:
- Contributions are tax deductible.
- The assets in the account grow tax free.
- Withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are tax free.
- If you take the money out for non-qualified expenses, you will pay taxes and a 20% penalty.
- Unlike FSAs, HSA dollars are not “use it or lose it.”
- Contributions can be made by either you or your employer.
- 2017 annual contribution limits are $3,400 for an individual and $6,750 for a family.
- Those over age 55 can make an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution each year.
- Money in the HSA can be invested in stocks, bonds and mutual funds.
A few things change at age 65…
- Distributions after age 65 are never subject to a penalty, even if not spent on qualified medical expenses. For non-qualified expenses just pay the taxes and use the money for whatever you want.
- At 65 you can pay for all Medicare premiums except Medigap with tax free HSA distributions.
- Once you enroll in Medicare, you can no longer make contributions to an HSA, but you can continue to use the existing money in your HSA.
Your best strategy
HSAs are growing in popularity, but they are not being used to their full potential. Because of the HSA triple tax advantage (in, out and during), the money should be invested for growth and allowed to compound as long as possible. Instead, here’s how most people use their HSA: 1) Add some money, 2) Leave the money in a no risk/no return money market, 3) Use the money as soon as they incur a medical expense.
Here’s how you should use your HSA: 1) Contribute the maximum amount allowed each year, 2) Invest the money in stocks, bonds and/or mutual funds, 3) If possible, pay for your current medical expenses out of pocket and allow your HSA money to grow until you retire. By doing that you are getting the most bang for your buck and creating a pot of money for retirement that can be used tax free for medical expenses or for anything else as long as you pay the tax.