As we age, it can be frustrating and discouraging to experience new physical limitations or new medical conditions. In terms of elderly health care, issues involving our mental well-being sometimes take a back seat to physical needs, but they shouldn’t be overlooked.
There are a number of steps we can take to help maintain a positive outlook on life. Here, we offer six broad strokes to keep in mind for yourself or a loved one as you address elderly health care issues.
1. Get Moving
Exercise leads to a release of chemicals in our brains called endorphins that are associated with a “feel good” effect. Multiple studies have linked exercise with a reduction in anxiety and depression.
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2. Be Social
Research has consistently demonstrated that regular interaction with other people is associated with a reduction in cognitive decline; in other words, it is good for our brains to socialize. There are many ways to increase our interaction with others:
- Exercise together: Take a walk with a friend or neighbor (see our post “The Benefits of Walking“), join a class at a gym, or get involved with a community center.
- Brain games: Brain-building games like Sudoku, crossword puzzles, or bridge, when played with others, can have a very positive impact on our cognitive function and our mental well-being.
- Meals: Plan a regular weekly meal with a friend or group of friends.
- Volunteer: There are many organizations, from hospitals to museums, in need of volunteers. It can be an excellent way to interact with others and to feel like you are making an impact on your community.
- Special interest groups: Join a book group at your public library, a class at your place of worship, or a support group. Check with your public library or community center for a list of groups that meet on a regular basis.
3. Be Self-Compassionate
Research shows that when we’re compassionate toward ourselves, treating ourselves kindly and nonjudgmentally, we tend to have better adaptive functioning skills, improved quality of life, and a greater sense of well-being in our older years.
4. Practice Mindfulness
What is “mindfulness“? It’s the ability to focus on the present moment, awaken to experience, and acknowledge and accept our thoughts and feelings. Research has found that practicing mindfulness can slow the aging process at the neurological and chromosomal level. In fact, our brains normally shrink 5 percent every 10 years after age 40; however, studies have shown that people who regularly practice mindfulness have less age-related loss of brain volume. Meditation is a common mindfulness practice, but there are many other small ways to start practicing mindfulness, including:
- One-minute breathing: This is something you can do anywhere and at anytime. Take a minute and breathe in slowly and deeply, focusing on your breath. Hold your breath for several seconds and then slowly exhale. If your mind wanders, acknowledge your thoughts but don’t judge them.
- Observation: Sit still for a moment and pick a natural object around you—a tree branch or a butterfly, for example. Try to feel as though you are noticing it for the first time and observe the way the wind blows the leaves or the butterfly’s wings flutter. Appreciate the nuances of the movements.
- Mindful action: Take a moment to perform an activity you do on a regular basis, but slow down and allow yourself to notice everything about it. For example, as you fill the coffee pot with water, watch your hands, observe the water’s flow, and consider how your brain directed your hands to hold the pot and turn on the faucet.
5. Stay Active
Continue on with favorite hobbies—or take up new ones that interest you. You may not have the time or energy to go antiquing as often as you did 10 years ago, but get out when you can to keep your mind alert. Gardening, word games, following your favorite sports teams, writing in a journal, browsing the Internet, window-shopping: Whatever excites you, keep it up.
6. Ask for Help When You Need It
Depression is not a normal part of aging, but the elderly are at increased risk of experiencing depression. Depression is also more common in people with chronic medical problems and data shows that over 80 percent of older people have at least one chronic medical condition.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression—such loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed, irritability, feelings of hopelessness, insomnia, or excessive sleeping—look into medical help. There are many options for treating depression and anxiety, including medications and cognitive behavioral therapy, and your healthcare provider can help guide you towards the right treatment option.
Originally posted in May 2016 and updated.