10 Easy Ways Seniors Can Boost Their Mental Health And Well-Being

A challenged brain is a happy brain. So when the kids are grown and you’ve retired from your job, you could find yourself struggling a bit to stay busy and engaged, and you might feel depressed.

You wouldn’t be alone. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that more than 6.5 million American seniors suffer from depression. Seniors living independently have the lowest risk for depression, with the condition affecting about 1 to 5 percent of this group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But at the other end of the spectrum, about 13.5 percent of those who require in-home help, and about 11.5 percent of seniors who are hospitalized, experience depression.

Despite these numbers, depression in seniors is frequently overlooked, according to Jaza Marina Brown, MD, a geriatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta. And that’s often because the symptoms may look like they stem from a different disease. For instance, weight loss and poor appetite may seem like a gastrointestinal problem, and problems with daily functioning could seem like a case of arthritis, Dr. Brown says.

Struggles with physical health can lead to problems with mental health for seniors, says Mustafa M. Husain, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the geriatric psychiatry division at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. Physical illnesses may contribute to depression, or vice versa.

Staying physically healthy, socially active, and mentally engaged as you age are keys to boosting senior mental health, experts agree. For instance:

1. Just Keep Moving

Exercise is essential for both the body and mind, Brown says. Go for a daily walk or join a senior exercise class at a nearby Y, gym, or senior center. If you have physical limitations, try chair exercises. If you’re physically able, try a dance class. A study published in August 2014 in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association found that just one 60-minute dance class a week led to significant improvements in depression symptoms.

2. Socialize at Your Senior Center

“Senior centers offer a variety of classes — from crafts and hobbies to computer classes — to keep the mind interested and active,” Brown says. Some also offer transportation to those who need it. 

3. Stay Involved in Family Gatherings

Find ways to be included and visit often with family, especially grandchildren. Keep visits short if you get tired, Dr. Husain says, and make sure you’re just there to enjoy their company rather than be a babysitter.

4. Call on Friends

Stay connected with your peers. Get your hair done together, go on a shopping trip even if it’s just to the grocery store, or have them over for dinner. The social stimulation will do you all good, Brown says.

5. Turn to Technology to Stay in Touch

Schedule regular phone calls to catch up with loved ones, and send snail mail or email letters, cards, and photos. Try Skype or FaceTime for a video call. Create a memory book with your grandchildren and share it with the entire family.

6. Go Back to School

Challenge your brain by taking a class at your local community college; many are free or offered at a very low cost, Brown says. Try a literature class or study another language, and look for online classes if you can’t leave home.

7. Get a Pet

Whether you’re a dog person or a cat person, caring for a pet can be helpful, Husain says. Animals make seniors more socially engaged, less depressed, and less agitated, according to a review of research on animal therapy published in November 2014 in Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research.

8. Play Games

Try word puzzles, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and games like Sudoku to keep your brain healthy and stimulated. Join — or start — a bridge club with your friends, Husain suggests. A good card game is always a good opportunity for conversation.

9. Make a Deeper Spiritual Connection

Religion and the community that goes with it can offer meaningful activities and support, and your place of worship can also be a great venue for volunteering, Brown says.

10. Make a Difference

Volunteering comes in all shapes and sizes. Pitch in locally or search online for ways to volunteer from the comfort of your own home. For instance, the United Nations Volunteers program has opportunities across the world. Giving back can be one of the best ways to add meaning to your life. Husain knew a 98-year-old who still volunteered at a popcorn stand at a children’s hospital. “The pleasure he got out of it was much more than any medication I could have given him,” he says.

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