WHILE SUICIDE RATES ARE HIGH AMONG RETIREES, MANY FIND WAYS TO GET MORE OUT OF LIFE.
By Taylor Burt
At face value, retirement sounds like the relaxing period in one’s life: sleeping in, not dragging yourself into work and, with luck, a great pension. That’s not how it was for Doug Ashmore’s former co-worker. Retiring from his job as a preventive maintenance mechanic in Brampton, Ont., this man simply sat at home all day, every day, watching TV. Ashmore, 69, who is planning to retire in less than a year, says he can’t understand how his co-worker could not be more active and social.
It’s not unusual, however, for retirees to become socially isolated. They haven’t just given up a job, say experts. They’ve also given up workmates and the sense of purpose a job can bring. In fact, retirees have one of the highest suicide rates, right after that of young adults and middle-aged people. According to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, 10 or more seniors die by suicide each week. And many more cycle into depression. A Mood Disorders Society of Canada report says five to 10 per cent of seniors will experience depression if they are living in a community. But if the live in an institution, that rate increases to between 30 to 40 per cent. The reasons are complex. But understanding what factors are likely to increase someone’s sense of loneliness, and how to cope with weeks and months of “free time” that retirement brings, is key to overcoming that isolation.
One strong indicator of post-retirement depression is gender. Elderly men are four times more likely than elderly women to commit suicide. Research suggests that one reason for this is that men tend to form stronger relationships within the workplace than women do. As a result, their identity is more tied to their sense of themselves as workers. When a man loses touch with his coworkers, he may be losing touch with a bigger proportion of his social world. Women, on the other hand, tend to create more of a balance between their work and everyday life commitments; they are more likely to form relationships wherever they go. So, once they retire, they still have access to those around them outside the workplace for companionship.
Faced with more time to themselves, men may turn to alcohol. Gary Kennedy, director of geriatric psychiatry at the New York-based Montefiore Medical Center, says men who have a few drinks during the week before retirement may get caught up with too many drinks after retirement. “Typically, alcohol and substance use rates decline with age, but sometimes you’ll see older males in particular, now that they have so much time on their hands, they increase the alcohol intake,” says Kennedy. But because they’re no longer working, and perhaps not socializing as much, retirees who abuse alcohol may be harder to identify.
Research also shows that gender matters when it comes to people coping with faltering health. The older you get, the more your body starts to break down, and the more you may have to depend on others for help. But men, especially those 80 and older, can be reluctant to seek help, says Kennedy. They are more likely than women to feel it is a sign of weakness.
Eric Horsley retired in 2015 from Georgia Pacific, where he worked as an industrial millwright mechanic for 35 years. He says the key to a happy retirement is hobbies. Horsley and his wife, Sheila, take dance lessons. “We do line dancing at the Legion, every Friday night,” in Durham, Ont. The dancing keeps him active and immersed in the community. “She’s the only one that’s ever dropped me on the dance floor,” says Horsley, recalling a time when Sheila accidentally tripped him, and he landed on his back. “What’d she pick up first?” he quips. “Not me. Her cowboy hat!”
Retirement can be a wide-open space of possibilities or of loneliness. It can be a chance for vacations or to pursue things you’ve never had the time to before. But for some, the very act of planning how to fill that time can be incredibly stressful, possibly intensifying feelings of depression. Planning for retirement is different than planning for anything else, explains Susan Mintz, a social worker who worked at the Peel Memorial Centre for Integrated Health and Wellness, in Brampton, Ont. Planning your next meal, or what time you have to go to bed in order to wake up at a certain time in the morning, is different than planning what you want to do with your final years. But, Mintz adds, it is different for every person. Not everyone has to have an extravagant lifestyle to remain happy during retirement. Sometimes, family members have a hard time accepting that. They pressure elderly relatives to travel or join clubs after retiring when, in fact, the seniors are content to just stay put.
“There’s nothing in the world wrong with somebody who says, ‘You know, my greatest joy is baking for my grandchildren. Christmas is coming, and I’m going to spend three or four days making their favorite cookies and I’m not going anywhere. I put on the music on the radio and I’m just super content,’” says Mintz.
On the other hand, many retirees go back to work part time, out of boredom or for extra money because they did not plan well. Or they take advantage of programs at clinics, hospitals or senior centres that can connect them with others. Mintz advises listening to seniors and paying attention to what they want out of life. Simply because someone would rather sit in front of a television doesn’t mean they are necessarily depressed. It could mean they are using their time to relax. However, she cautions, there are individuals who are isolated and depressed who need encouragement to try new things and join new groups. It’s all about communication. “They may have to try three or four or 10 things before they hit the right combination, and they may find that they really prefer to do things earlier in the day. Or maybe not. Maybe they like to have a break, and they like to have something in the morning and something later in the day,” says Mintz. “The trick here is to be patient.”
Research on retirees and depression largely focusses on how white, straight men adjust to retirement. We know less about other groups. According to Kennedy, suicide rates for other cultural groups may be underreported. “For years it was thought that suicide rates in Chinese and other Asian Americans rates were so low. It turns out it was such a stigma and embarrassing thing to report that it was kept secret. Maybe older white males are just more visible.”
Meanwhile, Ashmore has some idea about how to avoid his former co-worker’s fate. He already keeps busy when he’s not at work. He plans to help his wife run her Mary Kay Cosmetics team. “There’s nothing like Mary Kay because it’s like a giant family,” he says. As well as with working alongside his wife, Ashmore looks forward to spending time with friends he has made outside of work—an advantage he has over many men whose social ties are based primarily at the workplace.