Helping retired men find new meaning in life

Summer 2016

The average Canadian works 35 to 40 hours per week. Work can have a major impact on a person’s identity as it provides a sense of routine, social interaction and meaningful activity.

This can make retirement a daunting experience. While retirement can be challenging for both sexes, men tend to have greater difficulty in forming relationships and interests outside of the workplace. Overwhelmed by free time, some feel disconnected, putting them at risk for depression.

Dr. Marnin Heisel, a clinical psychologist and scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute, is leading an innovative study to address this issue. With funding from Movember Canada, Dr. Heisel and his colleagues are facilitating community-based men’s groups for those concerned about the transition into retirement.

Importance of meaning in life

Older men have the highest rates of suicide worldwide. These rates increase dramatically in the years following retirement.

Over the past 20 years, Dr. Heisel has been investigating the role that meaning in life plays in the enhancement of mental health. Meaning in life refers to the sense that one’s life has a deeper significance. In a recent study at LHSC, Dr. Heisel and his colleagues worked with older adults at risk for suicide. They found that participants who experienced a significant increase in their perception of meaning in life also experienced a significant decline in symptoms of depression and thoughts of suicide.

In another study, Dr. Heisel and his colleagues found that older adults who report a strong sense of meaning in life also report significantly more reasons for living. These individuals were far less likely to contemplate suicide.

Given this research, Dr. Heisel proposed the need to enhance the recognition of meaning in life among retirement-aged men. “If we can enhance positive psychological factors, we may be able to improve satisfaction with life,” says Dr. Heisel.

Meaning-Centered Men’s Groups

To address this need, Dr. Heisel and his colleagues are developing and evaluating “Meaning-Centered Men’s Groups”. The groups consist of men who are recently or soon-to-be retired. They meet once per week for 12 weeks in a local community centre, joined by Dr. Heisel and a community-based social worker.

Together, they discuss new opportunities to find meaning in life. Topics include contributions to society, volunteering, leisure, personal relationships and more.

Before group meetings, participants are evaluated for psychological, social and health factors to ensure they meet the requirements of the study. These assessments are repeated to evaluate participants’ progress.

Finding new sources of meaning

“Our first men’s group ended last July with promising results,” says Dr. Heisel. “The group thrived as they explored new sources of meaning. Feelings of hopelessness about social relations and thoughts of suicide declined significantly. Satisfaction with life, a sense of identity and overall psychological wellbeing increased.”

A second men’s group is currently underway with two additional groups planned for 2016. Meaning-Centered Men’s Groups will also be offered in Calgary and Vancouver by Heisel’s colleagues. The research team ultimately hopes for these groups to be available in communities across Canada.

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Dr. Marnin Heisel