Getting older has a bad reputation in our youth-crazed society. We are taught to fear aging, to expect our quality of life to fade. Research on all aspects of aging tells us that this is not the case. If we take care of our bodies and our minds, we can shape our later years into a rich, adventurous, fulfilling chapter of our lives. Take care of our minds, you say? Can we change how our minds age? The answer is YES!
Maintaining good mental health in older age is as important as making sure our bodies stay healthy. Here are some key ways to keep the mind strong and well, starting the minute you read these words.
How to Maintain Good Mental Health in Older Age
Help it stay in chemical balance
Many people develop depression in their later years, just as in the other phases of their lives. It is not a necessary or a normal part of aging, and can be treated just as with a younger person. Often a combination of lifestyle changes including dietary and sleep improvements are suggested, along with therapy and/or medications.
The best approach to depression, however, is prevention. Regular exercise helps the body produce natural anti-depressants, as well as increasing the flow of nutrients and oxygen to the brain. Limiting sweets and refined starches protects against the mood swings that come with fluctuating blood sugar.
Medications can contribute to depression, too. If you notice new symptoms--sleeping more or less than usual, new irritability, feelings of sadness, hopelessness or inadequacy that are hard to shake, changes in eating or socialising habits - speak to your doctor right away. A change in medications may be in order.
Give it something to do
We all know that spending our lives on the couch in front of the TV is not good for us. As it happens, it isn't just bad for our waistlines, but it contributes to depression. Our minds need to be active, just as our muscles do. TV is a passive form of entertainment; it requires nothing from us.
To fend off depression and anxiety, two common disorders among older people, it's important to tap into the brain's natural resources: imagination, creativity and learning. Mental health improves when the mind is fully engaged in interesting projects, from history books to crossword puzzles, from painting to poetry.
Have you ever noticed that the happiest retired people you know are the ones that are always busy? Their secret is that they keep their brains active, humming along like a finely-tuned engine instead of idling in one place.
Connect it with others
Recent research suggests that loneliness is even worse for us than smoking cigarettes. Mental health depends on the social relationships we have, from spouses and immediate family to community and professional friendships.
We define ourselves so much with our work, it can be hard to build and maintain healthy social networks when we are no longer working. If we move to new communities to be near our children (or better weather), we have to start a whole new social life; what a challenge! The grief of losing loved ones may drive some to isolate themselves, which prolongs their pain and may contribute to mental health problems.
Making a committed effort to developing and nurturing social relationships is a key investment in long-term mental health. From book clubs, to weekly telephone and video calls with distant family/friends, to joining a community centre, seeking opportunities to spend time with people you care about is an investment in mental health.
Learn how to talk about it
Many of us find it hard to talk about our emotions because we weren't raised to discuss them publicly. It's never too early to start practising, with the people you trust. Learn to distinguish between sadness and frustration and anger; learn the names of your feelings and practice naming them.
Ask your friends and family to share their feelings with you and practice listening. These conversations will help you ask for help if you notice changes in your emotional health, as well as increasing your connectedness.
If you plan to be around for a while, it's wise to start on these strategies now, to maintain good mental health in your older years. Life's challenges will be far more manageable when you meet them with a healthy blend of optimism and realism. You already take care of your body, so that it will be there for you as the birthdays keep coming.
Add mental health protection to your self-care plans for aging, and you will be maximise your quality of life for a long time to come. How can you learn more about supporting mental health in older people?