Retirement: A Dream or a Depression? 

By Leah Lancione

If you are retired or your spouse, sibling or loved one has recently retired, you may be aware that depression often follows this new chapter in life. The onset of depression may have caught you or your loved one off guard if you didn’t prepare properly. Though folks often plan by investing in special retirement funds, they don’t always plan for the potential mental and emotional ramifications associated with not working anymore.

Licensed clinical psychologist, author and associate professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, W. Robert Nay PhD, explains that after retirement people can lose their sense of purpose in life or sense of self. This occurs because much of whom someone is, the goals they’ve had, what friends they kept and what activities filled their schedule on a daily basis, was dictated by their career. If a retiree ends a long career and subsequently moves to a new place where they have to meet new friends and neighbors—not to mention figure out what to do without not going to work—the stress can lead to depression. Dr. Nay explains that improper management of “stress” can lead to depression, especially if the person, now having retired, has also adopted bad sleep habits, eats a poor diet, gets in to substance abuse or has chronic pain problems.

Though it’s a topic baby boomers may shy away from because of the stigma their parents placed on mental health problems, depression after retirement is common and should not go untreated. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) reports that “depression is considered the most common mental disorder of people aged 65 and older.” Furthermore, the APA even maintains that depression may even be more widespread after retirement “because the symptoms of depression often appear in people who have other conditions, or can mimic the symptoms of dementia—its victims withdraw, cannot concentrate, and appear confused.

So, was author Ernest Hemingway accurate in claiming that “retirement is the ugliest word in the language?” For some, at least, the answer is yes. And sadly, this depression, which Dr. Nay reveals is fueled by irrational thoughts, or “cognitive distortions,” robs retirees of the quality of life they deserve.

In his private practice, Dr. Nay uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people identify and alter their dysfunctional thinking patterns and unhealthy behaviors that cause depression. He applies the metaphor of a three-legged stool to explain how it’s critical that a person’s wellness, cognition and behavior be in balance. Dr. Nay explains that CBT helps people recognize thoughts that are irrational (reasoning from emotions, not facts) and unhelpful (creating ever-negative views). The next step is to devise a plan for combating and replacing these unhealthy thoughts and behaviors.

The health website WebMD recommends that the first step for someone who may be depressed is a visit to the doctor for a complete evaluation. The doctor will likely treat depression by prescribing medication (antidepressants) or therapy (with a referral to a psychologist), or a combination of the two.

So what are the symptoms of depression? The APA has published a list of the most common symptoms with the most universal being “a deep feeling of sadness or a marked loss of interest or pleasure in activities.” Other symptoms listed include:

• changes in appetite that result in weight losses or gains unrelated to dieting
• insomnia or oversleeping
• loss of energy or increased fatigue
• restlessness or irritability
• feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt
• difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
• thoughts of death or suicide or attempts at suicide

What should you do if your spouse or loved one has some or all of the symptoms of depression, but resists treatment? Dr. Nay advises you to ask the loved one how they’ve been feeling and then to describe what you have observed without attaching a label.” For example, instead of using the word “depressed” say: “We’ve noticed that you don’t have that spark that you normally possess.” Then, suggest a visit to the family doctor.

Dr. Nay says it’s possible that the doctor will prescribe a serotonin supplement if a deficiency is detected or recommend a combination of an antidepressant and therapy. He insists that depression is extremely treatable and people often see improvements in a relatively brief period of time. Dr. Nay equates depression to wearing dark-colored glasses: You cannot see or experience the richness of life. So, if you or someone you know appears to be struggling with a clouded view of life now that they’re retired, it’s time to seek professional help.

For more information on W. Robert Nay, PhD., visit or contact him at his private practice at Annapolis Psychological Associates in Maryland (410 897-1088) or at McLean Psychological Practice in Virginia (703 893-3431).

The American Psychiatric Association has helpful information at Under “choose a topic” near the top of the website, click on “depression” or other related subjects.


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