Health & Nutrition

How to Retire with ADHD: Structure, Stimulation, Purpose

After retirement, many people with ADHD spend their time in all the wrong places — online shopping, daytime television, and restaurants. Use these strategies to create a more fulfilling life after full-time work ends.

ADHD Retirement Guide: Structure, Stimulation, Purpose
A gray haired woman having fun in a kayak

Retirement is surprisingly challenging. Our working years give us daily structure, a built-in social life, and a sense of purpose. Once these are gone, retirement brings a void that is difficult to fill.

When you face retirement having attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), the challenge is even greater. We thrive on structure and stimulation, but it is hard for us to create them ourselves. Many of us fall back on “default” stimulation — overeating, drinking too much alcohol, online shopping, overusing social media, and watching too much television.

How can you create structure, find healthy sources of stimulation, and retain a sense of purpose in retirement? I’ve talked with lots of retirees who have ADHD and here are their strategies:

1. Work part-time.

Sally had been employed as a high school art teacher for many years while raising two daughters as a single parent. Her home may not have been the neatest and her weekday dinners were a bit haphazard, but taking care of her girls and going to work during the week gave her the structure that she needed to counteract her ADHD.

In retirement, she moved to a community near her eldest daughter. Instead of feeling happy, however, she felt lost. Her daughter suggested that she take an art class at a local community center. One thing led to another. As soon as the community center staff learned that Sally was a retired art teacher, they invited her to teach a couple of classes. The community center became her home base for social activities and for part-time work that gave her recognition, a valued role, and engagement in an activity she had always loved.

[Free Handout: How to Manage Your Time at Work]

2. Become active in a church community.

Many of the older adults I talk with say that their church community has become the center of their social lives. For some, that means weekly church attendance and perhaps a mid-week group of some sort. Those with higher energy levels and greater need for stimulation become involved in church activities.

The key is to take ADHD into account when you decide what to volunteer for. Roles that call for planning and organization skills may not be a good match. Those that call for diving in and helping with an already-established activity usually work best. Mary loves gardening and has volunteered to maintain the landscaping around her church. She does weeding, mulching, and flower planting, but she’s not involved in setting the facilities management budget for the church.

3. Volunteer.

It can be difficult to find meaningful volunteer activities, especially for individuals who have had professional careers and crave responsibility and stimulation. One approach is to identify an organization whose mission you support, and contact them to explore whether you could bring value to their organization. One woman I know, a retired English teacher, volunteers at the local juvenile detention center, where she started a book group that has become popular. She reports that the young detainees are among the most enthusiastic and dedicated students she has ever had.

4. Take courses designed for seniors.

When you have ADHD, good intentions go unrealized when there’s no structure to help you get started and keep going. You may fantasize about learning Italian or writing a memoir, but the key to such projects is structure, structure, structure. There are courses designed specifically for seniors in many communities. You may want to develop stronger computer skills. Organized classes can provide the structure needed to keep a senior with ADHD on track.

[“Oh, I Am Very Weary…”]

5. Join an active adult community.

Many older adults with ADHD do well in active adult communities. These typically offer a range of meetings, clubs, and activities. There is nothing to plan or organize; all you need to do is to show up. This is perfect for an aging person who has a lot of interests, but struggles to organize activities or finds it difficult to find like-minded individuals. It’s like summer camp for elders.

6. Retire gradually.

Some of us have the opportunity to gradually reduce our work hours, or to change how we work as we approach retirement. Those who work for themselves have more control over the process of gradual retirement.

Hank had worked in his family’s business for nearly 30 years. The business was sold with the agreement that Hank would remain on hand as needed to guide and train the new owners and to introduce them to long-standing clients of the company. At first, Hank was frustrated by this condition, but after several months, he realized that it was a win/win agreement. He had time to plan exciting trips, including a long-distance bike ride he’d always dreamed of, and he felt good about his new role in the old company. He retained his identity as an expert while dipping his toe into retirement.

Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., is a member of the ADDitude ADHD Medical Review Panel.