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Retirees with group memberships are happier and healthier

by Lindsay Jolivet Feb 29 / 16

Social planning for retirement may be as important as financial planning, a new study suggests.

A group of seniors discusses how to decorate the lounge in their seniors home
Image provided by Catherine Haslam

The study followed retirees in the years before and after they left work and found that those who held on to their social groups, or who joined new ones, reported higher life-satisfaction and had a lower risk of dying early. Protective groups were diverse, covering a range of organizations, clubs or societies that included sports teams, social clubs, cultural groups, and church congregations.

CIFAR fellows S. Alexander Haslam and Catherine Haslam are co-authors on the study published in the journal BMJ Open and led by Niklas Steffens and involving Tegan Cruwys and Jolanda Jetten, all at the University of Queensland. They analyzed survey responses from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing and found that quality of life dropped 10 per cent for each social group that retirees lost after leaving work. The same effect was absent for a similar group of people who didn’t retire.

“Life transitions come with uncertainty,” says Catherine Haslam, “We know that people cope better if they are more socially connected, but these ties must be important to you if they are to help you adjust.”

The study also found a correlation between group memberships and the risk of dying within the first six years of retirement. Retirees who belonged to two groups before and after they retired had a two per cent risk of dying in the first six years. For those who lost one group membership, the risk of dying went up to five per cent, and for those who lost both groups, the risk was 12 per cent. As a point of comparison, active people who slow down or stop exercising after retirement face a similarly higher risk of death.

The researchers say that we need to change the conversation around retirement, so that seniors hear more than bank advertisements reminding them to save enough money.

“In retirement, there’s a huge focus on financial planning, and this is an important part of the transition. But there’s not a great deal of focus on social planning, and this is a major factor in the poorer adjustment that we see in about a third of retirees,” says Catherine Haslam.

This could be partly because they don’t have the skills to seek out the meaningful group connections they need or they simply received bad advice, leading them to make socially isolating decisions such as moving somewhere sunny where they don’t know anyone.

The researchers say we should advise retirees to maintain their connections or join new groups that will be meaningful to them. “Just having a friend probably isn’t enough, you need to have a group with organized sets of activities and goals and events,” Alexander Haslam says.

Those who are still working may want to start thinking about their connections long before it’s time to retire, particularly if they devote much of their energy to their profession.

“I think people nowadays are probably less likely to have multiple group ties because their work is so all-encompassing that they’ve invested so much in that one group membership,” Alexander Haslam says. “If you have all your eggs in that one basket and suddenly it’s taken away, then you’re struggling.”

This is the first in a series of similar research projects involving CIFAR fellows including Nyla Branscombe (University of Kansas) and John Helliwell (University of British Columbia). Their previous research has shown that group memberships improve self-esteem more than friends alone, improve health and a sense of personal control and slow cognitive decline.

The researchers also intend to study direct applications, such as how to develop a good social plan for retirement. With this in mind, Catherine Haslam is a leading a new project — together with Tegan Cruwys, Alexander Haslam and Genevieve Dingle — into a five-phase program called Groups 4 Health, which helps people who are feeling sad, lonely or stressed and nervous develop social group networks.

The first trial of Groups 4 Health was published earlier this month in the Journal of Affective Disorders. It reported that the program led to significant improvements in participants’ depression, anxiety and stress. “We believe this is an immensely exciting development” the authors noted, “and we are looking forward to working with CIFAR to take this research to the next level.”