Sunday, September 11, 2011

Maintaining Mental Health as We Age

by Anne Pagnoni

Oh, to be young again!  How many times have you heard yourself or someone else say this?  As Home Care Assistance of New Jersey celebrates Health Aging Month, it's important to keep in mind that healthy aging encompasses more than just physical health.  Mental health plays a big part in how well we age. 

Many people are of the impression that memory loss is a product of normal aging.  This is not true!  However, as the saying goes, use it or lose it.  Therefore, in order to maintain your mental and cognitive health, you have to make sure you're exercising your cognitive abilities.  Here are some great brain exercises that you can do on a daily basis:
  • Play games that involve strategies, such as chess or bridge
  • Read newspapers, books, magazines and anything else that you find challenging 
  • Try to learn new things such as games, driving routes, musical instruments, a foreign language, or a topic of interest
  • Do crossword and other word puzzles
  • Spend time regularly with others either by phone or in person
  • Volunteer your time at an organization that you believe in
While many people live in fear of losing their memory, the greatest enemy of mental health is depression.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, older adults are disproportionately likely to die as a result of suicide.  Depression is one of the conditions most commonly associated with suicide.  The risk of depression increases when someone begins to lose his or her physical function and when other illnesses are present.  While feelings of sadness, grief, and blue mood are normal, persistent depression that interferes with someone's ability to function is not.

If you're depressed, you very well may want to lock the door to your home and not allow anyone in or venture out.  You may allow yourself to sleep or watch television all day.  These things will only make the depression worse.  Instead, you need to make yourself more active and more socially involved.  Research suggests that physical activity may be just as effective as antidepressants in treating depression.  You don't need to hit the gym for two hours per day to reap the benefits of exercise.  Instead, park a little farther from the store, do some light housework, or take a short walk.  If you're physically disabled or frail, you can always participate in chair exercises to help boost your spirits and your muscle tone.  Make sure you're enjoying the company of others.  You need support to get through a depressive episode.  Limit the time you spend alone.  Keep in touch over the phone or email if you're unable to get out of the house regularly. Participate in activities that you enjoy.  Get a pet to keep you company.  Laugh!  If you don't feel like you have anything to laugh about, then watch a comedy or read a funny book. 

If you have made some lifestyle changes but are still experiencing depression, then seek help.  Talk to your family physician about how you're feeling.  Therapy, support groups, and medications are all effective treatments for depression.  Don't go it alone. 

The key to maintaining mental health as we age is to continue to find meaning in our lives.  While we may no longer be working and our children may live further away, we can find other things that will give us a sense of purpose in our lives.  Keep moving forward instead of focusing on the past. 

As Mark Twain said, "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."  Make sure you're giving your mental health as much attention as your physical health!

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