Staying healthy and active in retirement

Leaving the rat race should be something to look forward to, a well-earned chance to kick back and do the things we love. Yet many of us are afraid retirement will leave us bored and unhappy. Here’s how to turn later life into a new lease of life.

By Helen Booth

Research shows people become happier as they move from their mid-50s toward retirement, with wellbeing peaking at around 70 . So why does the thought of retiring make many feel anxious about the future?

“Big transitions in life can affect anyone’s mental health,” explains Tom Gentry, Senior Health Manager at Age UK. “Entering retirement, experiencing physical health conditions and bereavement – they can all affect us as we age.”

Luckily there’s lots you can do to reduce the risks, starting with choosing how and when you say goodbye to the 9 to 5. We know that your route into retirement can affect your health and wellbeing later , so if you’re enjoying life before you give up work, you should be in a good place afterwards.

Coming of age

At first, you may find the transition to a life of leisure hard. Brian, who retired last year, certainly did. “I remember the first day after finishing work feeling completely disoriented, questioning my own decision to leave. It was like being thrown out into the big wide world, and it felt scary.”

But retirement can be a great opportunity to revisit who you really are as, during our working life, it’s easy to be defined by what we do.

Corinna Hudson is a Staff Wellbeing Advisor and Associate for Mental Health First Aid England and The British Safety Council. She says: “We become vulnerable to poor mental health if we rely too heavily on our work persona for our self-identity. Retirement gives us the opportunity to diversify and find value in new and different roles, which helps build our resilience and guards against low mood.

“Think about what you want to replace work with and make sure it’s enjoyable. Consider doing something out of your comfort zone.”

Brian agrees. “It’s important not to see yourself simply defined by age and ‘retired’ status. Society is quite good at pigeonholing people. It can be a limiting factor if you allow it to be.”

It’s never too late to learn

So, if you’ve spent your life wanting to speak French or play the piano, perhaps now’s the time to go for it? Corinna suggests The University of the Third Age is a good place to start.

Or you could consider devoting time to your favourite cause. Shaun Delaney, Volunteering Development Manager at the National Council for Volunteering Overseas, says: “Whatever your age, volunteering’s a great way to stay well connected and give time to a cause you really care about. Get in touch with your local volunteer centre to find out about opportunities around you.”

As well as a chance to do something new, volunteering is a great way to use your skills and experience. “Living in Waltham Forest, I’ve got involved in London Borough of Culture 2019 as a volunteer,” says Brian. “It was a no-brainer for me, having worked in events for many years.”

But don’t take on too much. Corinna warns that any more than eight hours a week and you might start feeling put upon.

Take a break

Having a happy retirement isn’t just about feeling useful and filling your days with activities. It’s vital to relax and enjoy your new-found freedom.

Brian explains: “My top priority last summer was to enjoy some free time. We got out and about, made lots of day trips and went on holiday. But summers don’t last forever. Come the autumn, it was time to review the year ahead and make plans.”

If you’re worried about retirement, it’s important to realise that you’re far from alone. Brian adds: “There are many other retired people out there. Many, no doubt, will have been challenged by retirement. But lots of them want to connect with other people and are open to sharing their experience.”

Dealing with any major life change can be challenging and retirement is no different. You may feel anxious or low  for a while and could find it hard to sleep – that’s normal. But if your symptoms continue for longer, it may be a sign that something more is going on. Don’t be afraid to seek help.

Corinna says: “There’s nothing unusual and should be no stigma attached to talking about mental health. Things like depression affect one in four women and one in eight men at any one time.”

If you’re worried that you or someone close to you is at risk of mental ill health, during retirement or at any other time, speak to your GP.

Or perhaps you’re having second thoughts about retiring altogether? Well some of the UK’s happiest people  are those who have made a positive choice to work beyond state pension age. Just saying…

The Mental Health Foundation has put together a guide for looking after your health in later life.