The loss of a routine and sense of purpose could lead you to experience symptoms of depression after retirement. Help is available and relief is possible.

Even if you feel lost initially, retirement could be the start of your golden years. It doesn’t mean that the transition is easy for everyone, and feeling sad, hopeless, or lost is natural and valid.

Depression after retirement is also common. It’s estimated that almost one-third of retirees in the United States develop symptoms of depression at this stage of life.

Managing depression is possible, though, and self-care and support can make a difference.

Everyone experiences retirement in a different way. But retirement may lead to depression in some people who face specific challenges.

“For many people, their work offers them meaning and purpose in their lives. When their job is gone, it can be difficult to fill that gap with something else,” says Iris Waichler, a Chicago-based licensed clinical social worker and author ofRole Reversal, How to Take Care of Yourself and Your Aging Parents.”

According to Waichler, who specializes in elder care, working can provide emotional rewards, such as a sense of achievement and satisfaction. It also offers opportunities for socializing and intellectual stimulation.

“Depression and sadness can emerge when this environment goes away,” she says.

This may be particularly the case for retirees who:

  • have lost a spouse
  • live on their own
  • go from everyday activity to a more sedentary lifestyle
  • face financial strain
  • didn’t want to retire
  • live with health challenges

For some retirees, it can be difficult to distinguish between a temporary bout of sadness or clinical depression.

While depression may involve feelings of sadness, it can also present a myriad of other emotions and physical symptoms.

“Sadness is an emotion that everyone experiences at moments in their life when there is a disappointment, challenge, or loss. It is usually related to an event or triggered by something,” says Waichler.

But unlike sadness, depression is a formal mental health diagnosis that can last months or even years if left untreated.

Symptoms of depression

Major depressive disorder, also referred to as clinical depression, is a mood disorder.

Symptoms include:

  • a decrease in the ability to feel pleasure or enjoy activities you used to be interested in
  • feelings of hopelessness
  • irritability and anger outbursts
  • crying for no specific reason
  • sense of guilt or worthlessness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty making decisions
  • changes in appetite
  • weight loss or weight gain
  • fatigue and body aches
  • changes in sleep patterns

You may experience only a few symptoms on the list, which wouldn’t necessarily indicate you’re experiencing depression.

If you experience 4 or more of these symptoms almost daily for longer than 2 weeks, it may be good to reach out for professional support.

“Therapists can give you information and teach skills on ways to cope with and adjust to a life of retirement. They can also assess the severity of the depression and may recommend if medication is needed,” says Waichler.

In addition to depression, retirees may experience several mental health effects.

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health challenges faced by older adults, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Symptoms of anxiety can be related to financial worries, illness, fear of being dependent on others, and other factors. A sedentary lifestyle can also contribute to anxiety.

Retirees, especially those who left work unexpectedly or unwillingly, may also experience persistent feelings of anger at themselves, their previous employer, or family members.

The transitional period also can put stress on relationships, especially romantic partners.

“Many people don’t discuss retirement with their partner [before it happens]. So, both may have different expectations, and this can lead to a lot of conflict,” says Noelia Leite, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and doctor of integrative health in Miami.

If a couple goes from only seeing each other in the evenings to spending most of their time together, relationship dynamics may change.

But not all effects of retirement on mental health lead to challenges.

A 2018 study using panel data from the Health and Retirement Study showed that many people experience positive health effects, like an increased sense of life satisfaction, after retiring. This all depends on context and circumstances.

Depression is a formal mental health condition, and symptoms can be managed. Treatment is often effective, so relief is possible. Self-care is also essential if you’re living with depression after retiring.

1. Consider a gradual transition

Many people don’t have control over when or how they retire. But if possible, gradually scaling work down gives you time to adjust to a new lifestyle, rather than going from full time to not working at all.

“This helps people feel more in control, and the retirement feels less abrupt and disruptive,” says Waichler.

The experience may look different for everyone, but a gradual transition could mean you:

  • plan at-home projects you could start working on while retiring and that you can undertake full time after you do
  • request going from full time to part time for a few months before retiring
  • join a mentorship program that allows you to stay active in the field you like

2. Try to create structure

Having a schedule can emulate the sense of purpose and structure that employment provides.

“Put together a calendar that will help keep you busy. Possible things to include are exercise classes, social events with friends, attending lectures, or spending time with family,” says Waichler. “It helps you to be more in control of your schedule and your life.”

3. Consider staying as active as possible

According to Leite, finding opportunities to build new relationships and socialize may help.

“It can be things volunteering in the community or even starting a new profession. Who knows?” Leite said. “But you need to move. You need to keep active.”

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), working and volunteering have been shown to prevent depression, as well as symptoms of dementia and hypertension.

If you face physical limitations, consider using technology to stay in touch and develop new skills and interests. You can find online courses and communities that may help you accomplish this.

4. Setting new goals can help

Goals can help you keep or regain a sense of purpose.

A cohort study of 6,985 adults showed that having a sense of purpose promotes improvements in:

  • physical and mental wellness
  • overall quality of life
  • decreased chance of mortality

Yet tapping into personal desires and goals can be unexpectedly challenging for many retirees.

“It’s a transition from the mindset of, ‘I have to work. I have to make money. I have to raise my kids,’ to now being in a phase where you are exploring your wants. ‘I want to be healthier. I want to travel more. I want to enjoy life more. I want to socialize more,’” says Leite.

Retirement involves changes and adjustments that, in some cases, may lead you to develop symptoms of depression and other mental health challenges.

Therapists who specialize in retirement or life transitions can help ease the process. They can also assess the severity of your symptoms and work with you in developing a treatment plan.

“Retirement is just a phase of life that is ending. You need to close it properly so you can start a new one [that is] more beautiful and more prosperous,” says Leite. “It’s very possible to have a great retirement phase.”