My plan for a mentally healthy retirement

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‘What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?’, asks Act Belong Commit’s Andrew Walton in this article about his own challenges ahead and staying mentally fit.

For me it was 30 years ago, when I left my home, career, friends and family to start a new life on the other side of planet Earth. OK, so it’s something thousands of people do every year, and yes, I did have the most important person in my life beside me, and yes, Perth is not exactly a hardship posting. Even so, it took some courage and felt like a step into the unknown.

Recently I’ve experienced a strong sense of déjà vu. Again, I’m about to do something that thousands of people do every day, but once again it feels like stepping into the void.

I’m retiring.
I’m saying goodbye to a job I’ve loved and colleagues who have become friends. Just as 30 years ago, all the things I am leaving behind are in sharp focus while the future is a fuzzy blur. It feels like another leap of faith.

While I feel the same sense of nervous anticipation as I did when I migrated 30 years ago, other things are very different.
For one thing, this time I’m doing it alone. The person I thought would be my life partner died when she was just a young woman. The wonderful three small humans she left behind with me are now grown, with their own partners and their own busy lives.

Most of us have heard it many times, ‘loneliness is a killer’, and there’s strong evidence that people who are lonely live shorter, as well as unhappier lives. As someone who has experienced depression and anxiety I’m probably more at risk than most.
But I think I’m going to be OK. You see I have a plan. Well, not so much a plan as some guiding principles. I’m confident they give me a good chance of staying mentally healthy and enjoying my retirement.

I’ve actually road-tested these principles in the last two years and they seem to work well.
I’d share my secret formula, but the truth is it’s not mine and it’s not a secret. And if you’re a West Australian you’ve almost certainly heard it already.

Act Belong Commit.

Sounds familiar? It’s one of the oldest mental health campaigns in Australia and a brilliant preventative mental health message. In three words it brings together three types of behaviour known to be associated with good mental wellbeing – staying active, staying connected to others and having something meaningful in your life.

In the last two years, I’ve taken this message to heart and I know it works. I’ve made a point of being active physically, mentally and socially. It may have taken me till my late fifties but this hardcore introvert has discovered the joys of social meetups, walking groups and quiz nights. I’ll never forget the look on my daughter’s face when I told her I’d set up a social committee for my apartment block (‘Dad what’s happened to you!?’). As for doing something ‘meaningful’, volunteering has become an essential part of who I am. For me there’s no better way to be active, stay connected and feel a sense of purpose.

And my mental health has never been better.

So my retirement plan is really very simple – Act Belong Commit. Every day.

More time walking, cycling and swimming and less time on Facebook and Instagram. More time spent with charities and community groups and less time on my own watching Netflix. This year I’ll visit the family I left thirty years ago and reconnect with some old friends. In spring you’ll find me on the wonderful Bibbulmun Track completing my own end-to-end hike. Next on the list is a scuba trip in the Abrolhos Islands with a boat load of university students less than half my age.

If that all sounds a bit frantic, please know I’ll be spending plenty of time on more relaxed versions of Act Belong Commit. You can expect to see me in Fremantle cafés chatting to friends and strangers, or on my balcony with one of the novels that have sat unread on my bookshelf for years. Who knows, perhaps I’ll even discover I do love jigsaw puzzles after all.

Am I guaranteed a long and blissful retirement? Not at all. As John Lennon said, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. I’m sure this next chapter of my life will have its share of challenges, loss and pain.

But I also know staying mentally health and well will be largely up to me. That’s why I’ll be as active as I can be, spend lots of time with others, and fill my days with things that give me joy and purpose.

(Guest author, Andrew Walton from Act Belong Commit, June 2023).