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Staying Mentally Healthy

By November 14, 2011No Comments

The challenges of maintaining mental wellness and getting older involve increasing effort with the passing years. It is quite common for us to experience a sense of loss, as our physical body diminishes in strength and function. In addition we experience loss in our families and friends as those close to us pass away and we live on. We may feel alone. How do we stay mentally healthy with all this change going on?

Maintaining a sense of purpose in life is critical to maintaining mental wellness.

People sometimes lose their sense of purpose when they stop working. Particularly for men, the loss of identity as a worker can be very difficult. Women may struggle with a sense of purpose when children are grown, and perhaps they are retired, have lost a spouse, and wonder what to do with their time.

This loss of a sense of purpose can be overcome in many ways. Volunteering your time with something you enjoy doing is one way. Having a structure to your day or week can be of great benefit. Volunteering is always available, and may also give you the reward of feeling appreciated.

The loss of a sense of purpose can also be overcome by learning something new. Most communities have adult education programs through the local high schools, community colleges, community centers, senior centers or other locations. Sign up for a class. Discover something you might have been curious about but never had time to pursue when working. The benefit of getting involved not only restores a sense of purpose, but it enables an individual to socialize with other people in a way that creates a new support system outside the former workplace or home. You might make a friend who has an interest in common with you.

As elderly aging parents experience loss in their lives, including loss of friends, loss of family members, and loss of spouse, they can also lose a sense of connectedness, which equates to loss of a sense of purpose. It is important to recognize the normal grieving process all human beings experience with loss. Mourning takes time and must be respected. It is critical to understand that if the mourning process exceeds a year or so, and the person is still very immobilized by sadness, a sense of loss, crying, anger, and the inability to move forward, the grieving process has led to depression that needs to be treated. Fortunately, depression is highly treatable, especially for seniors. Seniors have a tendency to respond well to anti-depressant medication. Research supports that seniors who are successfully treated for depression live longer than those who are not treated for this illness, and their quality of life is better, as well.

Structure is another essential element to maintaining mental wellness.

With retirement, some may lose the structure that has governed their lives for most of their adulthood. Before adulthood, most had school to provide structure for their days. In older age groups, with neither work nor school nor child raising responsibilities, the loss of structure can directly affect self esteem. Self esteem is promoted by individuals feeling productive in their world. When one feels productive, self esteem can thrive. When the feeling of productivity is lost or diminished, the sense of self esteem can erode. Without structure, it is difficult to be productive, so self esteem and structure go hand in hand. When structure is not imposed by school, family, or work, one must strive to create structure in life. Because we are mostly creatures of habit, creating structure is easier than it may seem. If, for example, one is used to getting up every day to go to work, one can substitute fun activities, volunteer work, or physical activity in the time which was previously occupied by work or other structure. However, maintaining structure is much more difficult than simply creating it. Maintaining structure requires a different kind of self discipline than it does to cook the family meals or work for a paycheck. One might, in older years, have to deal with physical pain, transportation issues, chronic illness, or lack of familiar companions to initiate and maintain structure.

Having Fun

Seniors experience much difficulty, when they have been very independent in their lives, in permitting others to create structure for them, and to accept this. Self acceptance is key to dealing with the diminished independence that often accompanies aging. We simply have to give up seeing ourselves as we once were, totally on our own, if we are to maintain mental wellness when aging changes us. Scheduling activity every day, especially fun activity is useful. Using a visual cue such as a calendar to track schedules, and not allowing oneself too much empty time can be very protective of your mental health. Too much empty time on one’s hands can lead to depression, for the reasons mentioned above. Wouldn’t it be nice to think of an outing to the theater, to a movie, shopping, or a visit to a favorite activity as something important, like taking your vitamins? Consider having fun as part of your job in maintaining a healthy senior lifestyle. The more fun you build into your life to keep structure in place, the better!

Creating or maintaining a sense of community is another cornerstone of maintaining mental wellness.

Being a part of a community can serve a multitude of needs. Mental stimulation, socializing, a sense of spirituality, a forum for physical activity, and a feeling of belonging are some of the benefits of community. Our society is mobile, and the sense of community once provided by families has changed over time for many, because families are scattered. Daily or weekly time with family may not be available to the aging person. Most elders in our society do not live with their adult children or other family. Some elders feel reluctant to bother others for transportation or company to attend a new group activity. Some may be embarrassed to have to rely on others. For some, joining a seniors’ group, for instance, may be unpleasant, as it means they are “old”. Not everyone is ready to face the thought. Seniors can benefit greatly from activities which enable them to join others and create or reinforce a sense of community. Group outings, especially those geared to seniors’ interests, can be enormously beneficial. Isolation is the opposite of maintaining a sense of community. Getting out with a friend and enjoying seeing something new can help build and keep a sense of community with others.

Mental wellness usually co-exists with some degree of physical wellness. Physical wellness, in this context does not mean freedom from impairments, nor being free of chronic illnesses. Most elders have some physical limitation, or must manage chronic conditions. However, one of the worst threats to mental wellness is poor nutrition, which includes fluid intake. The brain needs food. If we think of mental wellness as a product of our efforts to maintain it, just as a healthy body is partly a product of our efforts to be well, we understand that mental wellness is not a passive gift we get. We do have to work at it. We have to exercise our bodies, sleep enough, get good nutrition, and try to maintain a proper weight to be physically healthy. The same factors apply to mental health, as well. A routine for maintaining mental wellness is part of good overall health practice. Inadequate nutrition or the wrong foods can wreck our bodies, but these problems also damage our mental health by depriving our brains of the nutrients we need to think, make mental effort, participate in activity, and keep connections with others. “A healthy mind in a healthy body” is an old adage, but it is true. The “spirit” of a person is more than a healthy mind. It is more than thinking. Mental wellness is a combination of a healthy spirit, in a healthy organism that makes the whole of us.

Mental wellness, like good oral hygiene, like muscle tone, like proper weight, is achievable at any age for most of us. Like those other healthy conditions, it takes effort, and regular vigilance. The effort does not have to be restricted to things we don’t like. Having fun is an important part of mental health. Building fun into your life is more than an idle pursuit. It is part of your health maintenance. Mental wellness allows us the ability to love, to enjoy, and to make the most of who we are.

©2010 Dr. Mikol S. Davis & Carolyn L. Rosenblatt, R. N., Attorney at Law, and