Aging and Health: Why Mental Health Matters
We are all living much longer now. Life expectancy has increased by as much as a decade just over the past half century (United Nations World Population Prospects 2017) and it is projected to continue rising. We know how to extend peoples’ physical lives, but what do we know about extending peoples’ emotional lives?
All of us dream of moving into our older years in a healthy, vibrant way. While we cannot control all the variables, we can do many things that increase our chances of having an amazing final phase of life.Western culture has tended to look down upon old age as a time of life to fear. How many songs have we heard in our lives that have encouraged us to “Live while we are young?” But what does it mean when we can no longer get away with saying that we are young without others politely chuckling behind their hands? If we are to live while we’re young, does that mean we stop living when we are old?
In many cultures around the world, the elderly are revered and honored. They are welcomed into the home of one of their children when they can no longer care for themselves. We Westerners, however, often prefer a more independent and individualistic lifestyle.
We do not want to feel that we are burdening our families, but we also want our own space with our own lifestyle. But how much space is too much space? When does our independence drift into isolation?
Earlier theories on aging considered it both normal and expected that aging adults would tend to withdraw, become disengaged, less interested, and also less capable than their younger selves. According to this view, aging adults tended to take to their rocking chairs and watch the world go by with nothing to do but reflect on the life already lived instead of continuing to live the life that remained.
Another view promoted the notion that adults age most successfully when they stay busy. While there is truth to this view, there is more to successful aging than this. Just ‘staying busy’ is an oversimplification.
Busyness can distract from the life that you want to be living, and it can be totally empty if the activities you engage in are not fulfilling in some way. Most specialists on aging suggest that people who age well maintain the lifestyles, habits, interests, and relationships that were meaningful to them at midlife.
What promotes successful aging?
Exercise is the #1 predictor of aging well.
You may be thinking; “Why would I exercise? I’m no longer worried about my beach body!” Exercise is for much more than staying physically trim. Research has shown that cardiovascular exercise is essential to both long-term physical and mental health.
Exercise can decrease the incidence of dementia, improve emotional well-being, and decrease risks for many major diseases. Many people come to believe at a certain age that their bodies are too broken down to exercise; joint pain, strained muscles, etc., but even those who face severe handicaps can develop exercise routines tailored to their specific capabilities.
If you can no longer run, try swimming or biking instead. Need help coming up with ideas? Seek out professional help from a physical therapist or personal trainer. It has never been easier to find a healthy exercise routine that can work for you.
Social engagement is a must.
If you have family or friends nearby, make sure you are connecting with them regularly. If family is not close by, learn to use video calls on your phone or computer or use social media to stay in contact. If you are feeling isolated, or you don’t have much family, try to identify a friend that you could ask to get coffee, or get involved in a group.Many aging people consider moving to a planned community with services and activities targeted to those middle-aged and older. If you live alone, consider getting a roommate. Having someone else in the house with you can make a world of difference.
If you are older, living alone, and feeling isolated, it is almost guaranteed that there are other people in your community who are feeling the same way. Reach out and get involved. Check community boards, the public library, area churches and the newspaper for activities you can get involved in.
Having to talk and interact with people is work. Conversation places a demand on us mentally to pay attention, listen, track topics, recall information and use language. Apart from exercise, social interaction is the most protective factor against dementia. “Use it or lose it” is a helpful way to think about our social interactions, though the “lose it” aspect should not be taken fatalistically.
If you already have a strong social network, stay as engaged as you have ever been. If you have fallen off the bandwagon it can seem difficult to know how to re-engage with people. Conversation takes practice. If you feel isolated, or if you feel like no one listens to you, know that almost everyone feels that way from time to time! Practice being an excellent listener too. Try and focus all your attention on the person who is speaking.
It can be truly freeing to lose yourself in a great conversation. You may be comforted to know that others deal with the same problems that you face.
Isolation can be deadly.
Isolated older adults are at greater risk for illness and disability as well as premature death. Maybe you have friends, family, or even fulfilling hobbies but they are not enough to fill your time and you need other environments and activities to engage in.
Try volunteering! There are so many wonderful causes to be involved in and opportunities that match almost any ability level and area of interest. You get to stay engaged in an activity that helps those in need in your community and which helps you feel better about yourself. You get to engage with people outside of your network of friends and family, typically with people of all ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.
When you were a young adult or middle aged you most likely had multiple spheres of engagement and interaction – school, and career being major ones. When we lose this it is important to find another community that we can engage in. Volunteering is a great choice because it is typically fulfilling and fun! Helping others is a great antidote for too much self-focus. When we help someone in need, our own issues can seem smaller.
Many older adults may find that their social network of peers grows smaller over time as peers move away or die. The unfortunate truth is that the only way to grow your social network is to put effort into and to put yourself into situations where you feel uncomfortable. It will take time, energy, maybe even a few embarrassing moments but it is a must for a fulfilling life.
Mentoring the next generation helps us be happier and better adjusted.
Many young people can be overwhelmed by problems in their lives that seem truly insurmountable, and it is my guess that you would not have to think too hard to remember a time in your life when you felt the same way. Mentoring can be a formal agreement or an informal one.
Many churches and civic organizations offer ways to match up mentors with those who are interested. Be willing to share your wisdom, mistakes, and encouragement with the next generation. You have a perspective that they do not! Don’t lecture, but listen, share your story and give advice where appropriate.
Relationships with family are key.
Unfortunately, not everyone is blessed with family. However, even if you do not have family connected by blood it is important to find a family within your community. Finding a church family can be a wonderful way to find a connection with people across multiple generations. Joining a church that has small groups is an even better way to keep from feeling like just another face in the crowd.Maybe you do know who your biological family is but over the years you have drifted apart, it can be difficult to know how to rekindle your relationship, but it will never get easier than it is now to try. But how can you do it? Call them on the phone, get them on Facetime, ask to meet with them for lunch.
If the situation is delicate, try writing a letter and allow them to respond however they choose. Take initial steps to rebuild relationships by talking about neutral topics or positive times from the past. Try short and more frequent contact to strengthen the bond.
Siblings potentially can be the longest lasting relationships of our lifetime and they can often be very rewarding. Who else in your life understands your unique family history as well as your siblings?
Nurture your romantic life.
Even if you have been married for forty years, try taking your partner on dates or do something romantic as a surprise. Remind them how much you love them and of all the reasons that you have stayed with them through life.
If you are divorced, widowed or never married you can still find love and connection at any time in your life. Often, planned communities for older people can be a wonderful way to connect with other single people your age, but also try joining a club, or a game night. If you see someone you like, go and talk to them! You can never be too old to fall in love.
Cultivate gratitude and positivity.
Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies. – Philippians 4:8-9, The Message
Keep a gratitude list and note what is positive about the day. Make this a daily practice – studies show that the impact on mood is powerful. Recall good things from your past: relationships, funny instances, wonderful places you visited – your own personal greatest hits list! Reminisce with a friend or loved one – this makes for great uplifting conversations.
A Few Other Notes on Aging and Health
Find ways to cope with stress and anxiety other than with addictive behavior, or mindless entertainment. Develop a prayer practice or teach yourself to be mindful. When dealing with sad or anxious feelings, physical activity is a must. A simple outdoor walk can boost your mood. Adopt a dog so you have an excuse to go on walks every day. People love to talk at dog parks while their dogs play.Find a way to fulfill the creative part of yourself. Pick a hobby – dedicate a specific amount of time to it, and just do it. If you want to paint, don’t worry about whether your paintings will be remembered forever as masterpieces.
If you want to write a book, don’t worry if it will ever be published or become a bestseller. Creativity is for you. It is a way for you to process things in your own life, a way to interact with yourself in a meaningful way.
If you have always wanted to play music but have never touched an instrument in your life, start now! Don’t pick a skill to learn so you can be famous, pick a skill to learn because it’s fun! Pick a skill that will be challenging and push you.
If you have no idea where to start, seek professional help from a counselor. Get help managing your negative thought patterns and breaking bad habits that you may have held onto for years. Keep a list of all the things you are grateful for.
Try not to compare yourself to others, but instead focus on yourself: what have you been learning? How did you push yourself to stay socially connected? Have you remained physically active? You only get to live once, so go after the life that you want.
Even to your old age and gray hairs I am He, I am He who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. – Isaiah 46:4
“Rest on Seaside Bench”, Courtesy of Nathália Bariani, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Old Man Holding Camera”, Courtesy of Kahar Saidyhalam, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Small and Big”, Courtesy of Vidar Nordli-Mathisen, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Man on a Bench”, Courtesy of Huy Phan, Unsplash.com; CC0 License