Congratulations, you’ve finally reached retirement... now what?

The Bottom Line

  • Retirement is marked by several significant life changes, some of which can impact one’s physical and emotional health.
  • Maintaining productive social relationships and roles contributes to a happier, more fulfilling life.
  • Interventions aimed at encouraging people to take on meaningful social roles may help improve the health and well being of people in retirement.

“So, what do you do?”

It’s a question we’ve asked – or been asked – countless times during our adult lives. We all wear many “hats” at any given point but like it or not, the role we play in our jobs and careers is a significant one in helping to define who we are to others, and even to ourselves. What happens then once we retire?

It isn’t unusual for newly retired people – even those who have been looking forward to this phase of their lives – to report a loss of status leading to feelings of disconnection, aimlessness and loss of identity.(1)  Several studies have shown that maintaining active social relationships after retirement is closely associated with better health and a longer, more satisfying life.(2,3) But what isn’t so clear is what aspects of social relations are important and what can be done to encourage beneficial social roles among older adults.

In an attempt to shed light on these issues, a comprehensive systematic review  looked at different kinds of interventions designed to provide meaningful and socially engaging activities for people during their transition to retirement.(4) The review specifically reported on how effective the interventions were in improving senior’s perception of social roles and whether identifying with these roles resulted in improved health or well-being.

What the research shows...

The review reported results of 11 separate studies conducted over a significant span of time (1965 to 2009) and evaluated seven unique interventions including volunteer or paid participation in activities such as mentoring, child minding, personal development through continuing education, and park maintenance.

While the quality of the studies included in the review could be better, almost all of the studies reported positive outcomes such as: enhanced life satisfaction, greater sociability, more confidence, improved cognition, and greater perceived health and physical activity among those who received the intervention.

Retirement should be a welcome and well deserved reward for years of effort and accomplishments – at work and at home. But for some, it can trigger feelings of loss and emptiness. For optimal health and well-being, it is important for retirees to adopt new social roles that are both meaningful and enjoyable so they can answer the ‘what do you do?’ question with pride and passion.

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Author Details


  1.  Hobbis S, Thirlaway K, Sander L, et al. Retirement and Lifestyle Behaviours: A Thematic Analysis of a Pilot Study. Health Psychology Update. 2011; 20(2):2-8.
  2. Bath, PA, Deeg, D. Social engagement and health outcomes among older people: Introduction to a special section. Eur J Ageing. 2005;2:24-30.
  3. Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Med. 2010;7:1-20.
  4. Heaven B, Brown LJ, White M, et al. Supporting well-being in retirement through meaningful social roles: Systematic review of intervention studies. Milbank Q. 2013; 91:222-87.  

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