A State of Mind: Managing Your Mental Health as You Age
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Every day, innovative new technologies are being developed and exciting discoveries are being made to fight disease and lengthen lives.
Thanks to the breathtaking advances being made in modern medicine today, people are now living longer and healthier than ever before. But living healthier doesn’t necessarily mean living happier. Mental healthcare in the senior population is often lost amid all the fuss and worry over physical wellbeing.
The results of that oversight can be devastating. Studies show that 1 in 5 older adults experience some form of mental health challenge, with the most common concerns being depression and anxiety.
Mental illness, though, doesn’t just affect the mind or the emotions. It also impacts your physical and social well-being. Depressed seniors, for instance, are more likely to experience hospitalization. If you are depressed, you will probably require more frequent and more extensive medical care, and you’ll be less likely to maintain your vitality, quality of life, and social engagement as you age.
Supporting the mental health of the elders in your life, and taking care to nurture your mental health as you age, isn’t just a matter of mood, then. It’s a matter of life and death. And it’s a matter of making that life worth living.
The How and the Why
Depression and anxiety are a prevalent concern among seniors, even those who had not previously experienced either condition. Aging is often accompanied by significant, and frequently distressing, life changes.
Children grow up and leave home. Partners sicken and pass away. And the frailties of aging may lead to a gradual loss of independence. This not infrequently includes the difficult decision to leave the family home to move in with an adult child or to receive care in an assisted living facility.
Significant life changes, no matter what they are, when they occur, or how expected or “commonplace” they may be, bring emotional turmoil. Change is always disorienting and disconcerting. It is even more so when it is a change you don’t want, such as the death of a spouse, the loss of a home, or the erosion of physical health and self-sufficiency.
This is why particular care has to be taken to combat the depression and anxiety that so often accompany these difficult transitions. Seeking outside help from a professional therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist is the first and most important step, but it’s by no means the only one.
It’s also vital to manage your physical, environmental, and internal states. That includes ensuring you’re eating and sleeping well, that your physical surroundings are bright, airy, uncluttered, and cheerful, and that your stress, worries, and anxieties are under control.
Living the Life
A key strategy for nurturing your mental health is to cultivate your physical environment. Your living conditions are going to have a direct impact on your physical and emotional states.
Whether you’re living in your family home, with an adult child or relative, or in an assisted living facility, your space must be soothing, welcoming, and comfortable. Surround yourself with the things you love, but don’t hoard your space. Clutter will only increase your anxiety and your risk of falls, allergies, and infections.
And as you’re curating your space with objects you cherish, don’t forget about letting a bit of nature in. Choose light curtains and drapes or blinds that can be opened every day to let the sunshine in. Unless you have fur babies who enjoy darting out of the house and going on big adventures, try opening your windows or doors to get a breath of fresh air. Keep fresh flowers and green plants around to light up your space with life and color.
Somewhere to Belong
Aging is difficult for everyone. But it’s especially hard for traditionally marginalized groups. Seniors who are also members of the LGBTQ community may feel particularly isolated as they age. If you are a member of the LGBTQ community and your health requires you to relocate to a long-term care facility, you may fear rejection, or worse, from the other residents and staff.
It is currently estimated that there are more than 2.7 million LGBTQ persons over the age of 50 in the US. More than half of these report having faced severe discrimination in the past. The community is also disproportionately affected by significant health disparities, ranging from insufficient insurance coverage to a history of inadequate physical and mental healthcare.
If you are LGBTQ, you may be entering your senior years in poor health and with a legacy of trauma and discrimination. This puts you at heightened risk of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder (SUD), and suicidality.
The Age of Pandemic
The coronavirus pandemic has wrought havoc on all our mental health. Rates of anxiety and depression are skyrocketing due to the virus. But if you are a senior, those effects can be especially severe. Not only are you faced with the reality of the particular vulnerability to the virus that age brings, but you’re also probably far more isolated as a result.
That means you’re facing the fear of the disease while being stuck at home and largely separated from the people you love and need the most, especially in difficult times. Coping without being able to reach out and touch, hug, and hold your loved ones is immensely difficult.
But it’s still possible to manage the depression and anxiety of these trying times. The important thing is to limit your news consumption. Don’t fixate on reports of the virus. Restrict yourself to one or two updates daily, and then move on with your daily routine as best as you can while sheltering in place.
Call your friends and family, Video conference with them if you can. Break out your favorite books, music, and television shows. Load your day with things you love. And know that this, too, shall pass.
As we age, managing our physical health is important, but managing mental health may be even more so. Despite the many life changes that accompany aging, depression and anxiety don’t have to come along with them. There are things that you can do to nurture your mental health, to feed your heart, mind, and spirit, with the same commitment that you show in caring for your body. It just takes commitment, strategy, and support!
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