While we’re usually quick to deal with our physical health struggles, mental health can often be swept under the carpet, and can sometimes be difficult to talk about, particularly as you get older. However, as seniors are often prone to mental health difficulties, it’s important to stay on top of your mental health. Common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression can negatively impact physical health and wellbeing, and can lead to impairments in mental, physical and social functioning. With this in mind, have a read of this handy guide to senior mental health, and what you can do to ensure ongoing wellbeing later in life.
Seniors can be prone to a range of mental health conditions, including:
- Dementia, causing memory loss, confusion, communication problems and erratic behaviour.
- Alzheimer’s Disease, which may cause personality changes, along with the symptoms of dementia.
- Depression, leading to low mood, irritability, hopelessness and apathy.
- Anxiety, which may lead to problems carrying out daily activities.
- Bipolar disorder, leading to distinct fluctuations in behaviour and mood, and difficulty with daily activities.
- Psychosis (including late-onset schizophrenia) which can lead to erratic and unusual behaviour.
- PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder), which can make living a normal life very difficult.
Why is good mental health sometimes challenging for seniors?
It’s a long list, and it’s worth asking why older people seem to suffer so many mental health conditions. Multiple factors come into play here, and a mix of physical, social and psychological factors can combine to create challenging mental health conditions. Factors contributing to mental health problems may include:
- Loneliness or social isolation, which can contribute to the development of mental health problems.
- Loss of more and more close friends or family members, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
- A lack of proper nutrition over time, which can lead to a lack of vital nutrients to support brain health.
- Family history of mental health problems.
- Loss of independence, which can reduce feelings of mental wellbeing.
- Medical conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease etc. can contribute to the development of mental health problems.
- Medications used to treat many of these conditions, which often have side effects and can increase the risk of developing a mental health condition.
- Lowered income, which often occurs after retiring, leading to changes in lifestyle and sometimes heightened stress.
- Prolonged stress, which often contributes to mental health issues.
Ageing can often be a time of great change, decreased health and increased stress, all of which play a role in causing mental health problems.
Warning signs that your mental health might be suffering
You’ll probably notice some of the following signs or behaviours that may indicate you are experiencing mental health difficulties:
- Long-lasting sad or hopeless feelings (longer than a few weeks)
- Decreased ability to cope with the stresses of everyday life
- Sleeping difficulties
- Concentration difficulties
- Increased anger, hostility or irritability
- Persistent worries
- Memory difficulties or confusion
- Overdosing on medications
- Changes to energy levels or mood
- Appetite changes
- Feeling on-edge or restless a lot
- Obsessive compulsive thoughts and behaviours
- Persistent pain or headaches
If you or a loved one are displaying any of these signs, it’s wise to get help immediately. Consult your doctor or a mental health professional for a correct diagnosis, or call a helpline if you need to talk, such as:
- Beyond Blue (1300 224 636)
- Dementia Support Australia (1800 699 799)
- Lifeline (131 114
- Aged Care COVID-19 Grief and Bereavement Service (1800 222 200)
Tips for good mental health as you age
However, it’s not all doom and gloom: mental health issues are not a normal part of ageing, and mental health problems are highly treatable. There’s plenty you can do to protect your mental health and keep mental health issues at bay:
- Eat healthily, and avoid sugar and heavily processed foods
- Stay active by exercising multiple times per week
- Take up a new hobby or learn new things
- Do puzzles, games or brain teasers to exercise the mind
- Get enough sleep and practice good sleep hygiene (click here to read Steps to getting a better night’s sleep for older adults).
- Get help from your doctor or a mental health professional if you suspect a problem – and do it earlier rather than later
- Follow your treatment plan
- Maintain strong social connections with friends and family and allow them to support you
- Be flexible and adaptable and don’t be afraid to make changes to your lifestyle
- Try breathing exercises to help you relax and de-stress
- Practice gratitude
- Try journaling to rid your mind of all its worries and help you focus and remember
- Use technology to stay in touch with far-away friends and family
- If possible, get a pet, or arrange regular contact with one
- Consider volunteering to add meaning and purpose to your life
- Look inside and think about your spirituality and how religion might help
Everyone wants to spend their senior years feeling their best and able to enjoy their lives, and getting older certainly doesn’t have to mean suffering from mental health issues. In many cases there’s plenty you can do to facilitate good mental health, so be proactive and do whatever it takes to enable you to feel your best. Taking your mental health seriously will go a long way towards being able to maintain a better quality of life as you age.