A colleague of mine announced his retirement and we began discussing the research on mental and physical health associated with leaving one’s former occupation or profession. As I’ve mentioned in earlier articles, the foundations for “mental hygiene,” which is my term for keeping the brain supple and insulated from disturbance, a sort of “Purell” for the mind, are R.S.S, which stands for Routine, Schedule, and Structure. After any significant life change, whether exposure to crisis or trauma, the loss of someone important, or the loss of something important, which includes retiring from one’s job or occupation, a person is best off maintaining their R.S.S.

Routine means doing the things one has always done: getting up early, eating, studying, exercising, and going to bed at normal hours, according to one’s previous life cycle and rhythm. Schedule means aiming to do those things at the same time each day that one has always done them. So, setting a bedtime and adhering to it, getting up at a normal time, normal mealtimes, working the intellect, and taking breaks, should follow the familiar pattern and routine. Structure means that one’s morning, day, and evening should include a range of activities. This means that in addition to one’s survival needs such as eating and sleeping, one should schedule time for social interaction, family togetherness, religious practices, creative activities, exercise, and relaxation.

The research on what happens to people after retirement, even when they are relatively young (below the age of 65), is not very rosy. An underactive mind and an idle body seem to promote or expedite significant deterioration. If we do not continue to stimulate our minds and bodies, our systems will slow down and eventually shut down. Our Sages have asserted that “batala mevia li’yedei shimum—inactivity breeds madness.” So, staying physically and mentally active can promote health and mental wellness.

As people age, particularly as they become less animated and less engaged with others, the mind can grow lonely, then depressed, from which can emerge feelings of insecurity and vulnerability, irritability, and even paranoia. Preventing this can hinge in part on retaining a social routine, which involves conversing with others and sharing activities with other people. When a person withdraws and converses less, the brain begins to think in shortcuts rather than in carefully constructed sentences. It becomes more difficult to communicate once we become accustomed to passive internal monologues rather than conversational dialogue. Relationships grow awkward, which leads to further social withdrawal and isolation. Stay engaged with others. Communicate. Converse.

As we age and live apart from our children, an older adult can start to feel they are no longer important or needed for much. This can lead to feelings of estrangement and can also lead one to alienate others. Stay connected. Correspond by writing, by texting, or by calling loved ones. Find meaning in being a parent, grandparent, and even a great-grandparent.

As we mature, ideally the emotions and intellect should also continue to mature. Ideally, one’s spiritual life becomes more significant, as often happens during the later phases of life. Involvement in spiritual practices, whether defined by immersion in prayer, meditation on the Psalms and other sacred writings, studying new material which one has not yet mastered, attending or listening to Torah lectures and shiurim, or writing one’s thoughts and teaching others can all uplift the mood while also stimulating brain regions which may have been underutilized in earlier years.

There are definitely regions in the brain that remain underactive as we grow older. Research shows that aging people who pick up a new hobby or a creative practice function better and even seem less prone to the onset of some forms of dementia. Learning a new language, acquiring a new approach to analyzing and studying various topics, turning to artistic creativity, or even developing new skills whether cooking, baking, repairing broken items, or learning a musical instrument can all serve as activities that open up new pathways in the brain to keep it activated.

It is important to get out and exercise. Besides the many ways physical exercise can strengthen and tone muscles, it is also useful for monitoring one’s weight and promoting brain health by generating chemicals that lower depression, anxiety, and fatigue. As for fatigue, studies demonstrate that we need less sleep as we age, but nighttime sleep can be affected negatively when one naps too long in the daytime. Make time to relax but relaxing should not be synonymous with sleeping.

As I told my colleague, retiring means to keep very busy, but instead of working at a livelihood, we should work on improving our lifestyles and life itself. n

 

Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is a forensic and clinical psychologist, and director of Chai Lifeline Crisis Services. To contact Chai Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis helpline, call 855-3-CRISIS or email crisis@chailifeline.org. Learn more at www.chailifeline.org/crisis.

 

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