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In 2017, Craig Bradley retired from a career in human resources at the age of 63. After working for 40 years, he was ready to put the early-morning wakeup calls, work emails and draining commute behind him.
“For maybe two to three months I was like, ‘Oh, I’m traveling here,’ and ‘I’m seeing these friends,’ ” he recalls. “But after that initial euphoria started to wane away, I started feeling lost, without purpose — like, ‘What am I going to do with my day?’ ”
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Financial and physical health are often top of mind for those approaching retirement and emotional health is commonly an afterthought. An October 2022 AARP study found that 57 percent of retirees and 41 percent of nonretired adults had never thought about planning for their emotional needs when they stopped working. Nearly half of retired adults said they had given no thought to finding ways to feel fulfilled.
“People often feel very overwhelmed with the idea of retirement,” says Patricia Cavanaugh, a former psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area who became a retirement life coach when she realized there weren’t many resources to help people plan for the psychological effects of leaving the workforce.
That can lead many to put off thinking about or planning for their post-work life. The AARP survey found that people starting out their retirement planning commonly feel uncertainty and dread. Among the newly retired, boredom, isolation, loneliness and a lack of purpose are common.
Another study found that 28 percent of retirees suffer from depression, a “substantially higher” rate than for the older population at large, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.
For Bradley, add guilt to the list. As he struggled to adjust to feelings of not being “needed” anymore now that he had no work obligations, friends and former colleagues would gush about how lucky he was to be able to retire.
“You’re already feeling badly, and then you’re feeling badly because you’re feeling badly,” he says.
Why retirement can feel confounding
One reason people may find themselves floundering in retirement is because we’re living longer than past generations and many of us don’t have role models for how to find meaning in the 20 or 30 years after we leave work, says Cavanaugh. Even those who are excited about retiring can experience anxiety if they don’t have a plan to help them make the transition, she adds.