Memory problems, cognitive decline and a growing loneliness epidemic make our elderly family members especially vulnerable to mental health issues.
According to Dr Mridula Shyam, senior psychiatrist, Apollo Clinic, Guwahati, in older adults aged 55+, an estimate of 20% seniors experience some type of mental health concern.
The most common conditions include anxiety, severe cognitive impairment and mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar depression.
“Common mental health issues like anxiety and depression can have a negative impact on physical health and wellness for seniors. Although the rate of older adults with mental health conditions tends to increase with age, depression and other illnesses are not a normal part of aging,” Dr Shyam says.
The stigma of mental health illness
“Sadly, mental illness is very misunderstood in our country. It is denied, demonised, stigmatised, mocked, stereotyped, minimised, marginalized, judged, and feared,” Dr Amlanjyoti Deb, consultant psychiatrist and senior resident, Gauhati Medical College & Hospital notes.
He stresses that mental illness is not a sign of weakness, a character flaw, a lack of faith, a curse or a moral failing. Mental conditions impact an individual’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect their ability to relate effectively with others and function on a daily basis.
According to Dr Deb, the diagnosis and treatment of a mental disorder is much more complicated for older adults. Symptoms of mental health issues like depression or lapses in memory are often dismissed as “normal” aspects of getting older, but these assumptions prevent seniors from getting the care they need.
Speaking on what causes mental health illness; Deb says that mental health condition is not the result of one particular event.
“It is due to multiple interlinking causes, such as genetics or family history of mental illness, the environment, and an individual’s lifestyle choices. Susceptibility increases for those who are exposed to things like prolonged stress from their job, home life or caretaking role, as well as exposure to emotional, physical or sexual trauma, or being a victim of crime. Biochemical processes, basic brain structure and nutrition also play a significant role in mental health outcomes. Bipolar disorder, Personality disorders (e.g., borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder), Dissociative disorders, Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Schizoaffective disorder, Schizophrenia, Substance abuse disorders, and eating disorders are some of the mental health problems commonly seen among adults. These are of concern since they can profoundly affect interpersonal relationships and overall quality of life,” he adds.
Tips for maintaining a good mental health
Eating right can help maintain positive mental health. Healthy wholegrains, fruits and vegetables, pulses are the way to go. Sugary foods give you a sugar rush and subsequently you feel tired and low when the sugar rush subsides. With healthier foods, the food is absorbed slowly and thus there are no mood swings.
Good sleep is very important, especially for older adults as their sleep needs change. As with age, we become lighter sleepers, we need longer duration of sleep to get adequate rest. Sleep improves concentration, memory formation, and restores any cell damage; overall refreshing the body’s immune system.
Exercise is known to improve mood and emotional well-being. It thereby prevents mental health issues. The double bonus is that it improves your overall physical health as well.
Good relationships are the backbone of good mental health. It is often considered the most important contributor to happiness and wellbeing. Socializing and staying connected helps those of all ages fight off depression. Considering the risks of isolation for seniors, it’s particularly important to stay engaged with the world around you. Try setting a schedule to call a friend or family members regularly, taking part in events at assisted living centers, getting together with friends, volunteering in the community, or joining a book club or other social group.
Pick a hobby
Take out time for enjoyable and relaxing activities. An overlooked part in our culture is the importance of hobbies. Fun hobbies such as a sport, an art class, gardening, etc can become a source of contentment and satisfaction.
Turn to Technology to Stay in Touch: Sending emails, messages, photos to friends and family can be a regular part of an elderly’s routine. Staying in touch on social media sites such as Facebook can also prevent social isolation for elderly, especially when their children live far, or in a different country.
Give to others
Performing small acts of kindness can give us a feeling of happiness and self-worth. It helps cancel out negative feelings about ourselves and leads to a feeling of contentment. You can engage yourself in the community, donate to a cause you believe in or volunteer at an NGO. It will not only be a service to the society, but will also be a rewarding engagement.
Seek professional help
Everyone, young and old, is susceptible to mental health issues. There’s nothing to be ashamed of – treat it as seriously as you would any other chronic illness that can interrupt your life. Start by talking to your doctor.
Talk to your doctor about any shifts in mood, anxiety, trouble sleeping or any other behaviour you’ve noticed in yourself or a loved one. These illnesses are treatable – your doctor may prescribe you medication, suggest therapy or another option.
Often, a combination of medication and therapy – which provides another social experience for you to speak with a professional or group about life’s challenges and your experiences – can work wonders for depression and anxiety. If you’ve never gone to therapy before, think of it as another new experience you can take on, and one that can change your life for the better.
These are your golden years – help make them as enjoyable as possible.
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