It’s not an official term, this ADHD Retirement Syndrome. It’s a term I started using years ago, to warn about its existence—and planning to avoid it.
Here’s the surprising truth: Retirement might not be the paradise you’re hoping for. Either as the adult with ADHD or the partner. This might be true even if you’re fortunate enough to retire in financial comfort. In fact, without a plan, retirement could massively disrupt your life.
It might be hard to imagine. It counters how we see retirement depicted in advertising and the media. That is, retirement is a phase of life where we’re looking spry and fly, enjoying leisurely pursuits free from working-world restraints.
Guess what? We don’t hear so much about it. But for many folks with ADHD, those “constraints” might be the key to functioning. Take away those constraints and “freedom” looks more like captivity, in front of a screen.
In this blog post, we will
- Explore the impact of ADHD on retirement with a few example
- Discuss the challenges associated with the lack of structure
- Consider strategies to help individuals with ADHD make the “Golden Years” truly golden
At the end, I’ll include a link to a podcast interview I did on Adult ADHD in the older population, with Don Akchin at The End Game, where the focus is on aging with joy and purpose.
ADHD Can Sabotage Retirement: Examples
Sometimes ADHD Retirement Syndrome doesn’t come as a surprise. In fact, the partners of some adults with ADHD view it with trepidation. For others, it comes out of the blue. Consider these examples.
28 Years Together—Then Boom!
Fueling trepidation are stories such as this, from a reader named Elaine:
My wife was a school principal until she retired 3 years ago. Over our 28 years together, I never really saw the full blown ADHD.
I’m so amazed (shocked, really) at how, now understanding ADHD, she was able to function — apparently quite well — in her career as an elementary school principal. I can only imagine that it was because she had a sharp staff who really liked her, the school environment was very structured with very clear rules and very clear consequences for breaking the rules.
The upshot is: When she was in a highly structured environment, she was great. Then BAM! Retirement. My hair went totally gray within a year! Since retirement, she loves the total lack of structure—or at least she says she does; I’m not so sure. She seems to go in circles a lot. But I’m the one paying the price. My sleep is wrecked, she’s put on 50 pounds, and there seems no end in sight.
“I’m retired. I can do what I want.”
A similar phenomenon ensnared a case couple in Course 1 of Solving Your Adult ADHD Puzzle: Foundations.
Carlos started working at a young age so he retired after 30 years relatively young. Husband Jeff, who worked at home as a freelance editor, watched in horror as their mostly happy home took a hard turn downward. As far as Carlos could see, the only problem was Jeff’s jealousy that he couldn’t retire, too.
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Jeff had a different perspective. Carlos reveled in staying up till all hours. For the first time in his life, he didn’t have to get up early for work. Yet, Jeff could no longer work at home due to Carlos blaring crime shows on TV all day, dragging home “treasures” from garage sales, or banging around their now-crowded house looking for renovation ideas.
If those were the only issues, Jeff might have found an office somewhere. But more dire consequence loomed on the horizon: Carlos was also plowing through his retirement funds at an alarming rate.
Jeff couldn’t understand what was happening until Carlos’ mother let it slip: Carlos was diagnosed with ADHD in childhood. “But I wasn’t letting those doctors give him pills,” she said proudly. “He was just an energetic boy.” That energy served Carlos well in his warehouse job, expertly moving pallets around. But now?
It became very clear to Jeff: The time for talking about Adult ADHD was here.
Tons of Post-Retirement Interests—But No Action
This note came from a woman, age 72, wishing her husband was having a happier retirement:
My husband retired a year ago. To be honest, he has done nothing but watch TV all day for the past year. I am not exaggerating. The TV is on from 9 AM to 11 or 12 PM, and he is sitting or sleeping in front of it.
He enjoyed his job. But I never realized how much structure his job provided to his day. Now that he no longer has that structure, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. I retired a couple of years before he did. While I have been able to make a schedule for myself and enjoy different hobbies and goals, he has not.
He seems depressed to me. We want flexibility to be able to travel, so returning to work is out of the question. He has tons of interests and projects he wants to pursue. But he is incapable of starting or finishing a project (always has been, due to his late-diagnosis ADD). He doesn’t know what to do and neither do I.
Late-Onset ADHD—or Retirement?
Someone asked me recently:
Have you seen any new research on ADHD emerging later in life as it did for my husband w/in 2 weeks of retirement?
Fortunately, we don’t need new research to tell us that ADHD doesn’t work that way. You don’t develop symptoms in two weeks. We’ll always find a lifetime history of ADHD, typically back to childhood. Various factors might obscure ADHD’s presence, of course. These might include intelligence, structured home life, and being really good at one’s job—typically in a structured environment and with support staff. But ADHD does not come out of nowhere, five or six decades in.
Late-Diagnosis ADHD—Or Alzheimer’s?
Mistaking undiagnosed ADHD for Alzheimer’s—that’s a serious risk. I wrote about this and provided a real-life example in this post: Is It Alzheimer’s Disease—Or ADHD
Is Adult ADHD in older people being misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s or dementia? I worry about this. A lot. This misdiagnosis poses devastating consequences for those individuals and everyone who loves them. The medical community should be taking this possibility seriously. But it mostly doesn’t seem on their radar.
That’s why I found it important to keep searching for the type of story I share with you today. A mother misdiagnosed with dementia—then correctly diagnosed with ADHD. Treatment gave her another 7-8 years of living on her own instead of in an Alzheimer’s facility.
Why Does ADHD Retirement Syndrome Happen?
It goes without saying: Even people without ADHD consider work their driving force in life. Negotiating the transition from work to retirement can throw anyone, especially those who enjoyed their work and gained positive recognition for it. But as with most things “human,” people with ADHD might suffer at the extremes.
Let’s break it down.
—The Need for Self-Structure:
People with ADHD often thrive in structured environments that provide clear guidelines and routines. In a work setting, tasks and deadlines offer a sense of purpose and direction. Other people are working, too, setting important external cues. When retirement arrives, however, poof! The familiar structure dissipates, leaving individuals to create their own routines and establish new goals. This sudden shift can be overwhelming, leading to feelings of restlessness, boredom, and a loss of direction.
—Difficulties in Self-Organization:
A core challenge for folks with ADHD of any age involves Executive Function deficits. These can manifest as difficulties in planning, organizing, and prioritizing tasks. They can make school and work particularly difficult. In retirement, where individuals are responsible for managing their time and activities, these difficulties can become more pronounced. Without the external accountability of work, adults struggle to maintain focus, complete tasks, and effectively manage time—or even see the reason for trying.
—Impact on Mental Health:
The loss of structure and routine can take a toll on mental health—especially those who experienced career success. Feelings of purposelessness, isolation, and a lack of achievement can create stress, anxiety, and even depression. The absence of external validation and camaraderie can further exacerbate these issues.
How to Navigate ADHD in Retirement
The ADHD-related strategies for having a happy retirement are the same that work throughout the lifespan. Let’s look at a few below. First, It’s important to acknowledge: Accurate diagnosis and, for many, competent medication treatment can provide the foundation on which these strategies can truly take hold.
1. Establish a Daily Routine:
Creating a consistent daily routine can provide a sense of purpose. Set regular wake-up and bedtime schedules, plan meals and exercise, and allocate time for hobbies and social interactions. Routines can not only help individuals with ADHD stay organized and focused, routines can also help to regulate Circadian Rhythms (sleep is covered in-depth in Course 2 of Solving Your Adult ADHD Puzzle: Physical Strategies)
2. Break Goals, Tasks into Do-Able Chunks
Large or complex tasks can be overwhelming for individuals with ADHD. For many newly in retirement, the major overwhelming task is, “What will I do now?” Breaking large goals into smaller, more manageable steps can make them less daunting—and increase odds of success. Utilize calendars, to-do lists, and reminders to help stay organized and on track.
3. Find Meaningful Pursuits:
Retirement offers an opportunity to explore new hobbies, passions, and interests. Engaging in activities that are personally fulfilling can provide a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Identifying activities that align with personal strengths and values boosts motivation and enjoyment. Sit down with a pad of paper and brainstorm. Think about the ideas you back-burnered years ago, waiting for when you had more time.
4. Seek Support and Connection:
Many adults with have ADHD have trouble maintaining friendships. Some have filled this void by relying on work friendships. These don’t always continue post-retirement. That’s why building a support network is crucial.
Join support groups (online and in-person) to connect with others who share similar experiences. These communities can provide guidance, understanding, and a sense of belonging.
Look for clubs associated with your hobbies and special interests. For example, a local genealogy group might host regular meetings and guest talks. Making it a routine to attend can help you stay in engaged in your project, create new social ties, and have a ready source for help when you hit a snag.
5. Consider Professional Assistance:
If self-organization and time management remain significant challenges, seek advice and support, such a professional organizer who specializes in aDHD and/or retirement. These can provide strategies, tools, and personalized guidance to overcome specific obstacles.
With the right approach, retirement can be a fulfilling and satisfying chapter in your life. Understanding common ADHD challenges and their solutions—that’s the key! Remember, it’s essential to be patient with yourself and seek advice when needed.
For More on ADHD and Aging:
What’s been your retirement experience? If not yet retired, are you planning for the transition? I welcome your thoughts!