Does Retirement Cause ADHD?

by James Wallace Harris, 3/11/22

I’ve been retired for eight-and-a-half years and I feel it’s been one long slow physical and mental decline. Of course, that feeling of decline could just be natural aging. I can understand why my body is wearing out, I mean, what machine runs for 70 years without breaking down? But comprehending my mental decline is a little harder to visualize. I know the brain is also a physical mechanism but it doesn’t feel like one.

What if that decline isn’t entirely due to aging?

I know is I’m having a harder time focusing. This morning, I asked myself, what if that lack of focus isn’t due to aging? It occurred to me that maybe having all my time free is destroying my focus, and making me mentally lazy.

Let me use a rather icky analogy. I have an overactive bladder. Tests show my bladder has shrunk. One theory put forth by my doctor is I developed the habit of going to the bathroom as soon as I felt the need. That conditioned my bladder, and it shrank.

What if being able to do anything I wanted. when I wanted, has shrunk my attention span? My days are spent flitting from one fun diversion to another, but never sticking with any task for very long. After eight years, I now have the time-on-target of a butterfly.

For example, I have a very hard time sticking with TV shows and movies. I switched to watching YouTube videos a couple years ago because they were shorter. However, they’re starting to feel too long. I watch a few minutes of one, then click to another. Similarly, I’ve switched from novel-reading to short story reading.

My days are filled with a routine of chasing one interest after another. I do the same kind of flitting on my phone, spending many total hours during the day compulsively checking Facebook, email, Flipboard, Apple News+, Spotify, Audible, Scribd, Feedly, Wordle, Quordle, Octordle, Twitter, NY Times, NY Times Crossword, Google, Wikipedia, etc. That might be another culprit to consider.

Every night I try to watch TV after dinner. I used to watch the news faithfully, now I skip through the 30-minute recording in a few minutes. I used to watch Jeopardy faithfully, now I skip days, and if the topics aren’t appealing, I hit the old back button to return to the menu to find something else. I record countless movies on TCM I want to watch, but each evening I go through my recordings trying four, five, six movies, often just watching them for a few minutes each.

Every so often I find a movie or TV show I’ll stick to. I used to love binge-watching shows but seldom do that anymore. I end up clicking on YouTube and watching short videos. Especially ones that last under 5-10 minutes. When I tire of TV I switch to reading or listening to music or doing puzzles or blogging. I can always find something I enjoy doing, it’s just that I don’t stick with anything long.

I would say I was bored or depressed, but I don’t feel bored. I actually enjoy this constant grazing of different activities. I now check YouTube three times a day for new videos. I’ll read for a little bit, then listen to music for a while, then write on a blog, enter data for CSFquery, play with the cats, take a nap, eat a snack, visit a friend, go to the bookstore. There’s always something else to do.

When I worked I had to focus on my job from 8:30 – 5:00 each day. I wonder if that discipline gave me the ability to focus in general? During my work years, I could watch a 3-hour movie without getting the least bit restless. Or write for several hours until I was worn out and starving.

Has aging ruined my attention span or lack of discipline?

I’ve thought of a way to test this hypothesis? Start sticking to one project again and build up discipline. Then see if that beefed-up ability to focus crosses over and improves my attention span in other areas. It’s sort of like my bladder. I’m retraining it by waiting longer before I go pee.

I have no desire to go back to work but maybe I can find one task I can work at until I can stick with it for three or fours hours straight. I’m going to work at this, but I just remembered something. Before I retired my ability to focus at work was waning. Maybe it is old age. Some people train with weights. I need to train with focusing. Then I’ll know.


12 thoughts on “Does Retirement Cause ADHD?”

  1. I’m 72, retired for about six months. I notice many of the things you report. I was definitely falling behind on the job (programming). But I’m not convinced ‘idleness’ causes ADHD. Looking back, the most valuable things I did for the company came from ideas I had while goofing off. I dunno if focusing on something for four hours is really worth it. I worked in a factory where we had to punch out to use the bathroom. I kind of think that the things we measure as productivity, are tasks that software should be doing.

  2. I do freelance work from home, and am also looking for other work, so I don’t have unlimited free time, but I can relate to what Jim recounts about having problems focusing. I wonder if social media and the internet contribute to this by giving us endless distractions. The net does have worthwhile things to read and watch, but there’s so much that it’s hard to choose one thing and stick to it.

  3. I’ve realised that my attention span is getting worse, but I do think it’s the screens/internet. The nature of the apps, the quick swipes, the availability of information that presses the EXACT buttons we want to press, I think it’s those things that contribute to our failing focus. I definitely am going to start using less screens. Wishing you all the best though!

  4. I’m right there with you James – 74 and 6 years in retirement and I feel like I’m in a boat drifting on the sea. Can’t seem to focus on anything for very long.

    That’s an interesting theory on retraining your bladder. The Duke of Wellington, I’ve read, told his soldiers to make water whenever they could. I wonder if that contributed to their focus at Waterloo. Who knows?

  5. Grazing and flitting? possibly bored & depressed. Suggest exercise and conversation. Join a games-playing group: cards, board games, Mah Jong … that should sharpen focus!

    1. Actually, I exercise regularly. I do Miranda Esmonde-White stretching exercises, and use my exercise bike and rowing machine. I do the Wordle, Quordle, Octordle every day, and regularly play cribbage, and I and my wife have game night with friends over where we play a variety of games. I do the Times Crossword puzzle for Monday, but that’s the easiest. I also maintain two blogs. I read a short story a day, and a book a week. And I keep up with a half-dozen friends, but that has been mostly through phone calls during the pandemic. I can do regular things like this. What I lament is not being able to focus on bigger projects like learning a new programming language or writing anything longer than a blog post.

      1. A short story a day, and a book a week? I admire that–I can barely manage a short story every few days. This may be because these days, with one thing and another, I sometimes find it hard to set aside time to read a story in one sitting, so often have to go back and re-read a few pages. Also, lately I seem to be hitting stories which are fascinating, but difficult in places, such as Robert Silverberg’s story “Trips,” in his collection Time and Time Again (a collection of his time travel stories).

      2. Yikes! You’re a busy active man . My apologies , I misunderstood your post. Possibly your brain is already bursting at the seams & there’s no space left for a new language.shlala gahle …. a Zulu phrase … go well/bye bye.

  6. There are several variables to dementia. Genetics plays a role. High blood pressure can accelerate the process. Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases also hasten the progression of dementia. Some of my friends have suffered strokes and mini-strokes. Dementia followed within a year.

  7. ADHD. Alzheimer’s. Dementia. That’s funny.
    Everyone is now oh so concerned about people who have problems remembering, well, stuff. And what is “their” solution, you know, all those same “experts” who would have me believe that “they” know…well, everything…about everything? Yes, by all means, let’s put all of our energy, indeed, all of our “science” into…into what…exactly…yes, that’s right…having the humans animal live, say, oh, another thirty-years or so.
    I mean what the hell could possibly go wrong with everyone (!) living to be a hundred years old or so? I mean it ain’t like all those same “leaders” and “experts” aren’t also always babbling on and on about those little problems of food shortages…you know, thanks to global warming. So sure, keep everyone living longer…at least chronologically. But they’ll mostly be just shriveled little bodies absent not only personal memories of the past but absent anything that might even come close to having meaning and purpose for the present which will…simply go on and on and on.
    But hey, that’s a good thing, right? After all, think of all the jobs it’ll create for all that in-home health care that’s going to be needed. Yeah, sure you’ll have to sell everything you ever worked for to start to pay all of those bills for all the medical care and all that stuff but that’s not really that big of a deal, is it? I mean, you’ll be….alive…or at least you’ll be living, well, in the chronological sense of the word.
    Humans don’t give a damn about…living. If they did, life on this planet wouldn’t be the hell that it is. Instead, they are simply scared of…not being alive. But then they get….old. And they start to think about how all that time and energy and focus on things like…oh, yes…jobs and careers and making money and never forget all those socio-political-economic agendas that are indeed worth fighting and killing and waging war over…yeah, suddenly none of that really mattered all that much, now did it, because suddenly, with one foot in the grave and your brain dying slowly but surely…and leaving you just enough conscious awareness fo realize you essentially pissed your life away…suddenly your “dying wish” is…is what…to live another thirty years?
    The human animal is his own worst enemy and he is too stupid to see it.

  8. Many years ago, my wife and I spent a year on sabbatical in Spain – taking it easy and having a nice time. Neither of us ever felt that we really recovered from the intellectual damage that mental inactivity did to us. More recently I retired in order to ease her through her final months, and remained so after her passing. Already I’m beginning to feel like a dunderhead. But, more recently, two days spent restoring the frightening rusty wheels on my ageing Toyota really seemed to perk me up – although it did little for the skin on my hands and my fingernails: I’m still lathering on the moisturiser several days later. Physical activity, I believe, is the key.

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