Life is a series of changes.
These changes can often feel like losses and can become especially overwhelming as we get older. Our children move out and become independent; we approach retirement and the shifting sense of identity that accompanies it; and sometimes we discover that our marriages will not last. “Grief is a natural response to loss,” says Dr. Michael Young, medical director of The Retreat by Sheppard Pratt. But with the right outlook, we can manage that grief and thrive in every phase of our lives. We talked to Dr. Young about healthy ways to navigate the tricky transitions many of us face as we age: empty nest syndrome, retirement, and divorce.
“The people who successfully manage these kinds of transitions are generally the people who have done the most preparation,” Dr. Young says. He suggests preparing for the changes you know are coming by developing hobbies and cultivating new social connections through each phase of life.
“For many people, the foundation of social connection comes through their jobs or marriages, and so disruptions to that foundation can make connections difficult to maintain,” Dr. Young says. The risk of loneliness increases as we age and can bring with it serious physical and mental health complications. It becomes more important than ever to reach out to friends and schedule quality time together and build new relationships by engaging personal interests such as joining a book club, a recreational organization, or a taking a class. New hobbies can help provide you with meaningful, productive activities at a critical time, while also introducing you to people with similar interests who may be in similar situations. “You need to prioritize positive social connections where you can speak freely, especially to others who relate to the kinds of struggles you are facing,” Dr. Young says.
“Retirement can be wonderful if you have a sense of meaning and structure in your life. If you don’t have a plan in place for after you’ve left the work force, it can lead to feelings of anxiety and isolation. You may want to consider postponing retirement until you are truly prepared.”
Find a new purpose
People often deeply identify as parents or by their occupations, and when their children move out or their careers change or end, they are left feeling a lack of meaning. Dr. Young suggests seeking out volunteer opportunities or pursuing longtime interests more seriously. “In those later decades, with less responsibility, we often have an opportunity to focus on other priorities and aspects of our life that we did not have the freedom or space to explore previously. It can take time and experimenting to see what resonates, but it is important to continue your own growth process,” Dr. Young says.
Your self-narrative is essential. “Rather than thinking your best days are behind you, try to use a positive and accepting framework: I’m actually doing well for someone my age, who has been through what I’ve been through,” Dr. Young says. Focus on your accomplishments, he adds; “Give yourself credit for a successful career or raising independent children—these are gigantic accomplishments!”
Developing a sense of optimism is important. “It isn’t about looking through rose colored glasses, it is about embracing the concept that what I am doing right now matters,” Dr. Young says. “If you start to become self-critical, apply the same compassion to yourself that you would offer a friend who was suffering in a similar way.”
Prioritize your wellbeing
Exercise is essential, and research continues to prove that the value of exercise is not only physical, but mental and emotional too. The best approach to exercise, for most people, is engaging in a consistent routine that is approved by your doctor. Each week adults need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity and 2 days of muscle strengthening activity, according to the current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Dr. Young suggests that a 30-60-minute walk, 3-5 times a week, can bring remarkable health benefits in both physical and emotional health. Eating a Mediterranean diet—rich with fresh vegetables and healthy fats—also has a positive impact on cardiovascular and cognitive health.
Mindfulness activities can decrease stress and anxiety levels while engaging the brain. Try breath meditations, available on apps like Insight Timer or Headspace, or a mindfulness walk, during which you pay particular attention to each of your five senses.
It’s okay to ask for help
“When going through a loss of any kind, it is important to be open to seeking help,” Dr. Young says. There remains an unfortunate stigma around mental healthcare, but having your feelings validated and getting perspective and advice from a seasoned professional can be a critical part of healing. “Think about reaching out for help as a sign of strength and courage,” Dr. Young continues. “Doing so makes you a positive role model for other people in your life.”
What is a good life?
Abraham Maslow, one of the greatest psychologists of the last hundred years, believed that a good life did not require being in an actualized state—entirely fulfilled and maximizing your capabilities. “The good life is striving toward your goals,” Dr. Young explains. “It does not require living our best life at any given moment, it is striving in the direction of our best life.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with big changes, professional support can be an important part of healthy coping. The Retreat by Sheppard Pratt offers individualized residential treatment by highly specialized clinicians in a peaceful and private location. Sheppard Pratt also offers outpatient therapy and many other specialized programs. For help finding a therapist that accepts Medicare, contact our Outpatient Mental Health Centers.