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Thursday, February 06, 2014

Games, Belonging, and Avoiding Depression in Retirement

I am no expert in game theory, but there is something which is now so clear to me that I just need to write something about it on this blog.

Many people, when they retire, become depressed because they no longer play a role in society.  They are no longer part of the "big game."  (This is a phrase I picked up from a Harrison Ford movie.  I'll figure out which one later.)

For each of us, the "game" involves reaching a goal.  It often involves gaining something, which gives us some satisfaction.  What we gain could be a game of checkers, a smile from someone we like, or status within a group.  The kind of game I am talking about generally does not involve "winning" in any all or nothing fashion.  To win is simply to participate and to achieve some kind of goal.

In this kind of participation, we are "known" by others. They see us as part of their circle.  They expect something from us.  They may expect us to do our part and pull our weight.  We may be seen as doing something particularly well, such as playing checkers, scrapbooking, or giving political opinions.  If we are "in the game" others may seek to have us as an ally when there is conflict.  Or they may expect us to be an enemy, but either way we are known to them.  If we do not show up, our absence is noted.

In this way, we have "self objects" (see Heinz Kohut on self objects).  And we are a self object to them.

People retiring may look forward to having nothing that they have to do.  But they are no longer part of the "big game."  In a worst case scenario, they go into a state of deprivation for face to face contact, which can lead to depression.  Many persons who retire do not quickly go on to develop dementia.  Their minds are still capable of analysis and decision making, but they no longer have a role to play.  They are no longer a part of the "game."

In a best case scenario, people still have a role to play at church, at the VFW, or at the country club.  They can still run for an office.  It may not be earth shaking in importance, but it's just as good.  They are not irrelevant to the people around them.  There is a reason to make an effort, to strive, to think, and to progress.

Unfortunately, for some people no such "game" is available.  They are shut ins, or there are no available groups in which they can participate in any meaningful way.  If elderly people are not seen as desirable participants, then they are shut out of the "game."  One cannot easily barge into a system.

I believe that to some degree elderly participants can form their own groups.  But I also believe that it is even better when younger groups (people younger than retirement age) can find value and purpose in including older persons.

This issue is not limited only to retired persons, however.  It can also apply to disabled persons.  It can also apply to newly divorced persons.  It can apply to people who have been dislocated and/or have moved to a new geographic area.

Well, I've said my peace for now.  More on this later.