It’s impossible to overestimate the negative impact loneliness has on health. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report that “scoring high on measures of social isolation is associated with a significantly increased risk for early death from all causes.”

While loneliness is a public health risk regardless of age, it’s particularly concerning in retirement, when several factors can converge to create the perfect storm. And because research shows that one in four older adults is lonely, it’s particularly important for retirees to understand how to combat loneliness in retirement.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Loneliness

Before examining the reasons for loneliness and addressing them, retirees and those caring about them must recognize the signs. “Warning signs of loneliness include sleeping too much, feelings of heaviness or sadness, lack of motivation, disengagement, changes in eating or drinking—especially with alcohol—or over-compensation, such as acting overly engaged,” says Marilyn Gugliucci, a professor and director of geriatrics research at the University of New England.

Gugliucci cautions that while we often associate loneliness with being alone, many people feel lonely even in a crowded room. “When their environment changes and they no longer have a regular familiarity with space and location, regardless of the number of people around them, they may feel lonely,” she adds.

What Causes Loneliness

People often feel lonely after they retire because they’ve moved to an area where they don’t know people, friends have relocated, or their family doesn’t live nearby. The biggest culprit, though, is leaving the structure, purpose, and companionship offered by a workplace without a plan for replacing it in another form. This can happen when people are simply too busy working to look ahead.

“Retirement can be like another empty nest syndrome if one does not prepare and plan for it,” says Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, a gerontological nurse practitioner and president-elect of the Gerontological Advanced Practice Nurses Association.

Gugliucci agrees, adding that many people nearing retirement have been programmed to tie their identities to work. “We have been expected to be human ‘doings’ rather than human ‘beings’—meaning that we often identify with our accomplishments, the positions we hold, the work we do, or the pay we get,” she says. When that goes away, we’re not sure who we are anymore. Losing that identity along with the social aspects of a job can lead to feeling lonely, she says.

On the other hand, retirees who have maintained hobbies and interests unrelated to their jobs throughout their working life often have a social network outside of work already, making the transition easier. “For others, their work may have served as a primary source of meaning and purpose in their life, one from which they derived pleasure and social connection. When that goes away, it can result in a fair amount of distress,” says Jennifer Geren, a clinical geropsychologist at Executive Mental Health.

What to Do About Loneliness in Retirement

One of the best ways to combat loneliness in retirement is to address the potential for it before retiring. As you plan financially for retirement, plan for the social and emotional aspects.

Acknowledge that feeling lonely is possible, then create a plan to help you avoid it. This requires knowing yourself and what you need to regroup or recharge. Gugliucci recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • Are you prone to becoming sedentary or a couch potato?
  • Are you an extrovert or an introvert?
  • What makes you feel whole?
  • What gives you joy?
  • What makes you feel useful?
  • How do you bolster your feelings of confidence and worth?

Use your answers to create a plan that reduces isolation and includes activities contributing to your happiness.

“Pondering these questions prior to retirement is good advance planning. Finding yourself in a funk after retirement only means you are getting a late start on identifying what motivates you and gives you purpose,” she says.

Ways to Avoid Falling into Loneliness

Consider easing into retirement and maintaining the social connections of a workplace with a part-time job, suggests Cate O’Brien, senior vice president at the Mather Institute, a think tank focused on research and information on senior living and wellness. “A growing number of retirees are taking jobs not just for financial reasons but because it gives them a chance to engage with others,” she says.

Similarly, Geren recommends identifying what you loved most about your job and looking for ways to enjoy those aspects again as a volunteer. Part-time employment, whether paid or unpaid, can add a new purpose to retirement while helping you stay engaged with your community in meaningful ways. Give yourself a reason to leave the house and engage with others by participating in senior center activities and outings, taking a class to learn something you’ve always wanted to do and never had time for, or joining or starting a club.

“There is no one strategy that fits all people, but knowing yourself and honoring who you are is a very important first step. The key to this is to look for the ‘open door’—what’s possible—rather than the ‘closed door’ – the job you left,” says Gugliucci.