Every day, you should be finding ways to contribute to your own good health, but it’s still nice to celebrate once a year the importance of being healthy. April 7 is World Health Day, and this year the focus is on improving health as people age.
Specifically, the topic of this year’s World Health Day is “aging and health,” with a theme of “Good health adds life to years,” according to the World Health Organization’s website. This is a day for people to focus on major health issues and implement changes that will affect the health of people all over the world.
Mental health in particular can be impacted when people age, and it’s necessary to always make mental health a priority because of its effects on overall health and lifespan. Experts have some advice on how to improve mental health while aging and some insight into what mental health issues people might deal with more often as they get older.
Jude Treder-Wolff, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of Possible Futures: Creative Thinking for The Speed of Life, said in an email that older adults tend to deal with more loss.
“The fact that we live longer now means facing more loss, but that does not mean we necessarily [have] the psychological and emotional strength to face it without significant and sometimes life-changing stress,” Treder-Wolff said. “With every loss we see more clearly the type and depth of relationships that we have developed over the years. Some people discover late in life that they never learned how to forgive, let go of hurts and resentments, or move on from a disappointment, and this awareness can come through going through a loss that cannot be undone.”
“Some people have rich, powerful ties to others, know how to maintain close relationships, but find that loss of those relationships is so painful that they get stuck in fear about finding new social connections,” Treder-Wolff added. “Also, loss brings out issues of identity—giving up work roles that define the self and provide purpose can be very inviting in the lead-up to the actual change but turn out to produce a crisis of identity that many people do not know how to resolve.”
As adults get older, depression and anxiety are still mental health issues they could face, she said.
“Related to the losses that are part of living longer, older adults have to navigate emotional and psychological disruptions that can overwhelm their capacity to cope and can also bring up buried feelings that were never dealt with in the past,” Treder-Wolff said. “When past hurts or losses rise up at the same time that a person is going through a current loss, a paralyzing anxiety can take hold. In my work in the personal growth/emotional recovery groups, this is a common theme among people in their 60s and 70s, that past losses they considered long-buried felt fresh and raw at the same time they are trying to cope with the loss of a spouse or a sibling.”
She said it is important to engage in mental fitness in the same way as physical fitness as people get older.
“To cope with changes over which we have no control that are part of getting older and to create change that allows us to continue to live a satisfying life, we need the skills associated with good mental health: the ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others; a social network that has some degree of intimacy and allows for self-expression; resourcefulness; the belief that we have something to contribute to the world, and activity that expresses our contribution,” Treder-Wolff said.
It’s not too late to have a healthy mind, and she suggests working on positive mental health starting now. “We will grow older the same way we live now, so if we want to grow older with creativity and a sense of possibility—which are directly related to positive mental health and important tools for dealing with physical health challenges as well—the best thing is to cultivate those qualities starting now,” Treder-Wolff said. This means doing activities like going to museums, art shows, and concerts, as well as meeting new types of people, forming trusting relationships, and learning new skills, she added.
Ilene Donin, a psychologist who works with elderly people, said in an e-mail that many physical issues that older people have, like digestive, visual, and hearing issues, can then lead to mental health issues. “These impairments lead to a loss of pleasure in activities which [rely] on one’s senses, one’s enjoyment of food, one’s enjoyment of movement,” she said.
Older adults have to cope with loss of family members and friends, which can be helped with more involvement from family members who are still living, Donin said. “A feeling of loss of control over one’s own life and one’s independence is a significant issue,” she said. “Relying on caregivers who can be dismissive, disrespectful, and or impatient is often traumatic for the aged. They [become] agitated, fearful, and will express this is in fits of anger [and] regressive behavior. For those used to a life of independence and self-sufficiency, this is a source of embarrassment and shame.”
There are some signs caregivers and family members can look for. “Mental illness is thus seen in behaviors such as withdrawal, tantrums, tearfulness, expressions of despair, and can precipitate cognitive impairment including the onset of dementia, and is seen emotionally in terms of anxiety and depression,” Donin said. Continuing to exercise the mind is key to having great mental health as an older adult. “Those individuals who have lived a life of productivity, intellectual curiosity, physical fitness, social involvement, and continue to take on new learning initiatives, like studying a second language, taking up bridge, etc., and perhaps getting involved in volunteerism are bolstering … their physical and mental health,” Donin said.
Also, don’t forget a proper diet to feed the body and brain. Foods with antioxidants, as well as Omega 3 fish oil supplements, are good choices, she said. Proper amounts of exercise and sleep are necessary for people of all ages as well. Carole Lieberman, a media psychiatrist and author of books like Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them and How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets, said in an email that it’s important to still go after dreams as an older adult, because that’s one way to cope with all the losses.
“The key to avoiding depression is to stem the tide of these losses by keeping physically fit, making new friends, and never to stop pursuing your dreams—even if you have to modify them a little,” Lieberman said. “For example, it may no longer be realistic to try for the Olympics, but you can still compete on a lower level, or even feel good about making it to the gym a few times a week.”
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