By Cathy Cassata
If you’re living with ADHD in your retirement years, navigating this life change can be both exciting and challenging. Ari Tuckman, PsyD, psychologist and former member of the board of directors of the Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or CHADD, says retirement for those with ADHD can be a double-edged sword.
“On the one hand, it’s wonderful to have a lot more control over your schedule. (But) because it’s so open and unstructured, it means you have to manage your schedule much more actively,” he says. “For folks who have ADHD, that could be more of a struggle.”
Kathleen Nadeau, PhD, a psychologist and author, says in all her research on older adults with ADHD, she found the most common complaint to be that people can’t seem to accomplish anything — despite having more time. Common statements she says she has heard include:
- “I don’t know where the time goes.”
- “It feels like I’m busy all day, but I’m just not getting anything done.”
- “I’m not doing the things I dreamed I’d do in retirement.”
- “I’m just sort of fiddling around.”
While similar feelings are common among retired people without ADHD, the inability to develop structure throughout the day seems to be more pronounced in those with ADHD, says Nadeau.
“Once you lose structure of having family in the house or a job to go to, this can be difficult for any older adult,” she says. “(For) adults with ADHD, the normal challenges are magnified significantly by the ADHD.”
Both experts share tips to help navigate retirement with ADHD:
1. Be the master of your schedule
Tuckman says a good place to start is to determine what you want to do with your time, what’s important to you and what you find interesting. Then carve out time for the mundane things that need to get done — like laundry, cleaning and grocery shopping.
“Accept that there will be a love and hate with (structure), so find the best balance that you can,” he says. “Find activities that are meaningful and interesting. And if you get bored, switch it up.”
2. Move into a retirement community
For many of her clients, Nadeau says, living in a retirement community helped them flourish during their retirement years.
“Depends on the interests, personality, values and finances of the person,” she says. “But I think in many ways, a retirement community in which there are organized activities that you can just show up for with built-in socializing is ideal for people with ADHD.”
3. Prioritize health maintenance activities
Taking medication as prescribed, getting refills when needed and complying with healthcare appointments takes planning and organization that Tuckman says becomes crucial during retirement.
He points out that people with ADHD who are not treated for symptoms and those have hyperactive-impulsive symptoms can have negative health outcomes, and even shorter life spans when health maintenance activities are not being met.
4. Nourish your mind and body
Nadeau says research points to the importance of engaging in brain-healthy daily habits as people age. To help older adults with ADHD nourish the brain, she coined the acronym MENDSS.
M: Meditation or other de-stressing activities like yoga and deep breathing can help combat stress, which has a negative impact on cognitive function.
E: Exercise, particularly aerobic, can help with brain function. “What I recommend to seniors is brisk walking as fast as you’re able to for about 20 minutes every day,” Nadeau says.
N: Nutrition. “It’s very damaging to the brain to eat a poor diet that includes alcohol, high glycemic foods, sugars, and starches,” says Nadeau. She suggests a healthy diet of lean meat and fruits and vegetables. “One of the challenges as we get older and live alone is we don’t feel like cooking, so now there are great options for pre-delivered meals or you can go to Trader Joe’s and buy a pre-packaged meal — whether frozen or fresh.”
D: Daily interaction with others. Because loneliness can have a negative impact on physical and mental health, including cognitive decline, Nadeau suggests making it a priority to pick a friend or family member to text, email, video chat or call each day.
S: Sleep. “We now understand that cerebrospinal fluid flows in and out of our brains during the night, but only if we get deep restorative sleep,” Nadeau says. “And that process is cleansing our brain of the plaque, among other things, that can lead to dementia.”
S: Societal connection. “I think it’s so important for all of us to feel like there is some purpose in our lives,” Nadeau says. “One of the most powerful ways to feel better is to help someone else.” She says volunteering for a cause you care about can bring that connection and purpose.
5. Join a support group
Finding a group of people who can relate to what you’re going through can help you cope with retirement.
“Support groups have always been beneficial in terms of social contact and normalizing that other people have similar struggles,” Tuckman says.
While ADHD support groups with older adults may be harder to find, creating your own is an option.
During the pandemic, Nadeau offered to lead a free online support group for older adults with ADHD. After holding the group for 15 months, she suggested that the nine women participating continue leading their own sessions. They took the reins and continue to meet virtually a year and a half later, she says.
“One of the most therapeutic processes that females with ADHD can go through is to find their tribe,” Nadeau says. “Because older women with ADHD have felt all their lives that they don’t fit in, have to hide their troubles, and feel judged for being late or disorganized or forgettable — all the things people tend to be when they have ADHD — it’s such a relief to be in a group with other females who are the same way and don’t judge, but provide emotional support.
6. Learn something new
Keeping the brain engaged and stimulated with new activities is something Nadeau encourages her clients to practice.
“(One) of the reasons why people start to rapidly deteriorate when they retire is that it’s hard to recreate that same level of engagement — where you’re problem-solving and interacting,” she says.
Seek out in-person and online classes and lectures that are often given for free or for a minimal fee at senior centers, libraries, and colleges and universities. An example of a great resource: Northwestern University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
7. Advocate for your ADHD
One of the challenges for people with ADHD in older life is that it’s easy for themselves, family members or providers to assume that ADHD symptoms are those of dementia, Tuckman says.
“But if you have ADHD and are 80 and forgetful, you were forgetful when you were 20,” he says. “It hasn’t changed. It’s an important difference for someone who has always been forgetful, versus someone who has become forgetful in the last five to 10 years.”
Informing providers about your ADHD can help ensure you’re cared for during retirement years.
“The challenge is that the providers who see older adults probably don’t know a lot about ADHD,” Tuckman says. “And those who know a lot about ADHD probably haven’t seen a lot of older adults because they haven’t sought services.”
The bottom line is this: As you live out your retirement years, finding ways to care for your ADHD and fill your time with meaning and purpose can make this stage of life enjoyable.