Becoming Mentally Healthy: A Guide for Older Adults
by Rebecca J. Stahl, MA
What does it mean to be mentally healthy? While there are many possible definitions, mentally healthy people can face challenges in a positive way, recover from setbacks, create and maintain good relationships, and find meaning in their lives.
It is just as important for someone in their 70s to have good mental health as it is for someone in their 30s. Being older does not diminish the need for well being. There are steps you can take to improve your mental health, no matter what age you are.
Ways You Can Improve Your Mental Health TOP
Take Care of Your Body
Your mental health and physical health are linked. For example, if you have cardiovascular disease or recently had heart surgery, you have an increased risk of depression. Depression itself has been associated with a number of medical conditions, including coronary artery disease (CAD).
Feeling depressed is not a normal part of getting older.
So how can you help your body and mind? You can begin by looking at your sleep schedule. Your goal should be to get 7-9 hours of shut-eye each night. If you are having any sleep problems, like difficulty falling asleep or not feeling refreshed when you wake up, try altering your sleep environment. Some small changes, such as relaxing before bed or adhering to a regular sleep schedule, can help. If you still have problems, talk to your doctor.
Exercise is another important ingredient in your healthy lifestyle. Whether you enjoy walking, swimming, or doing yoga, there is sure to be an activity that is a good match for your overall health and fitness level. Haven’t exercised in a long time? Make an appointment with your doctor to find out what types of exercises are safe for you. Try not to get hung up on how much activity you should do. Remember that any activity is better than no activity.
Healthy meals give your body the fuel it needs to function properly. You will not have the energy to exercise if you have a poor diet. But what should be on your plate? Many resources recommend that your diet includes a balance of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and low-sodium foods. If you are under- or overweight and need help with your diet, ask your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian to help you with meal planning.
Take Care of Your Mind
Your mind enjoys exercise too. You can challenge yourself by learning a new computer program, taking a watercolor class, or reading a classic novel. Explore your interests and have fun. If there is something you have always wanted to tackle, now is a good time to try it.
Take Care of Your Relationships TOP
Humans are meant to socialize. That does not change with age. Make time for your close family members and friends. While the moments you share can be as simple as getting a coffee together or taking a stroll in the park, the caring and support you provide each other make your life more meaningful.
If your loved ones do not live near you, there are many opportunities to meet people and create positive relationships. For example, you can find out what events are offered at your local senior center, join a fitness group, volunteer, or even work part-time at a job that you enjoy.
If you feel pressure to be everywhere for everyone, know that it is okay to decline invitations or commitments. It is normal to want time to yourself to pursue solitary activities.
Getting Help TOP
If you ever feel concerned about your mental health, know that there is help available. It is a positive step for you to take care of yourself. Many people start by talking with their primary care doctor, who can make a referral to a therapist. There are also organizations online, like the http://www.gmhfonline.org, which provide contact information for therapists in your area.
Make sure that you manage any chronic health problems outlined by your treatment plan. It is not uncommon for seniors to have an array of prescription medications. If you feel that the side effects from your medications make you feel sick or depressed, let your doctor or pharmacist know. There may be alternative options that include changing to a new medication or adjusting the dose you currently take.
Even if you do not feel that you are struggling right now, it is still a good idea to learn about common mental health problems that affect older adults, like depression, anxiety, dementia, and addiction. Find out what the risk factors and symptoms are. This way, if you do have a problem, you can seek help early on.
Geriatric Mental Health Foundation
Mental Health America
Canadian Mental Health Association
10 tips for improving the mental health of older adults. Mental Health America website. Available at: http://www.mhaindy.net/health_information/011_002.html . Accessed October 4, 2013.
Common mental health problems. Mental Health and Aging website. Available at: http://www.mhaging.org/guide/problems.html . Updated February 9, 2006. Accessed October 4, 2013.
Dietary recommendations for cardiovascular disease prevention. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us . Updated August 26, 2013. Accessed October 4, 2013.
How much sleep do we really need? National Sleep Foundation website. Available at: http://www.sleepfo... . Accessed October 4, 2013.
Improving emotional health. Help Guide website. Available at: http://helpguide.org/mental/mental_emotional_health.htm . Updated July 2013. Accessed October 4, 2013.
Mental health and mental illness. Mental Health and Aging website. Available at: http://www.mhaging.org/guide/mhmi.html . Updated February 9, 2006. Accessed August 11, 2011.
Physical activity for cardiovascular disease prevention. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us . Updated September 11, 2013. Accessed October 4, 2013.
Sleeping well as you age. Help Guidewebsite. Available at: http://www.helpguide.org/life/sleep_aging.htm . Updated June 2013. Accessed October 2013.
Wulsin LR, Singal BM. Do depressive symptoms increase the risk for the onset of coronary disease? A systematic quantitative review. Psychosom Med. 2003;65(2):201-210.
Last reviewed October 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 10/4/2013
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