If it’s May, it must be Older Americans Month. Did you know it is also national Mental Health Month?
It seems only fitting that these two commemorative dates fall in the same month. For millions of American seniors, maintaining good mental health is a key component in the healthy aging process. The National Council on Aging estimates that about one in four older adults have some type of mental disorder. We also know that older adults have a suicide rate that twice that of the general population.
Mental illness is NOT a normal part of the aging process, and seniors have actually been found to experience fewer mental health problems overall (excluding dementia) as they grow older. However, older adults are certainly a vulnerable population, due to factors ranging from co-existing physical conditions to social isolation and loss, and coping ability is often decreased. Seniors are also less likely to seek help for mental disorders. According to the CDC and the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 20% of adults over the age of 55 have dealt with some type of mental health disorder, but almost a third do not receive any treatment.
Aging experts speak of the concept of “positive aging” to describe the need to work with the whole person in promoting wellness. The focus is on meeting personal goals and addressing factors such as living arrangements and social support systems. Individuals are also encouraged to build “healthy habits” to develop overall wellness. This holistic approach emphasizes the mind-body connection: taking care of our bodies helps our emotion resilience, and the converse is also true. Research shows that untreated mental illness can lead to serious physical problems. For example, older people with depression are much more likely to die from heart attacks and cancer and to heal more slowly from hip fractures.
Based on our review of the recommendations of many aging and mental health organizations, we offer these 9 simple wellness tips for promoting better mental health for seniors:
Get regular exercise. In addition to benefitting one’s overall health, exercise has mood-boosting effects.
Eat a healthy diet. Avoid junk food and empty calories, and enjoy foods that pack more nutrition and provide greater energy.
Pursue personal interests. Enjoying a regular hobby or pastime can help keep a senior both physically and mentally active.
Maintain a strong support system. Staying connected with others is critical for sound mental health at any age.
Manage your stress. Meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, or gardening are just some of the weeks that seniors can reduce stress.
Get plenty of sleep. Between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night is considered ideal.
Learn new skills. Explore your creativity and maintain cognitive skills by taking an art class or learning a new language.
Adopt a pet. A household pet can provide daily companionship, as well as opportunities for exercise.
Have a daily dose of laughter. The best mood booster can be a watching a comedy on TV or sharing jokes with a friend.
If you would like additional information on how to promote mentally healthy aging for yourself or a loved one, The National Council on Aging offers many great resources through its Center for Healthy Aging. Its website provides links to webinars, fact sheets, and toolkits – helpful info for both families and professionals.