According to the Longitudinal Aging study in India, over 20% of adults above 60 years already face mental health issues. This number has been on the rise with increased stress, health anxiety and grief, especially in those who have lost younger family members, close friends or a spouse during the covid-19 pandemic. Amongst those who have recovered from the virus, research studies show older adults are at a two times higher risk of developing mood or anxiety disorders for the first time. Moreover, they are at a 2-3 times greater risk for developing dementia in the coming years. This raises concerns about another imminent pandemic – the mental health pandemic.
Whilst global efforts are underway to contain covid-19, at an individual level, there are several things older adults can do to improve their own mental health and remain resilient:
1. Try to remain positive: Although we can’t change what is going on around us, it is important to remind oneself of the previous challenging situations we have overcome in our lives. It all boils down to drawing from our inner strength.
2. Adopt a healthy lifestyle: Regular physical exercise for at least 20-30 minutes daily and following a nutritious diet are key to maintaining physical health. The release of endorphins during exercise also improves mood and provides a sense of well-being.
3. Follow a daily routine: This can be hard for older adults, particularly those who are living alone or recovering from covid-19. Starting with small steps, including fixing mealtimes and going to bed at the same time every day helps to get a better night’s sleep, making it easier to follow a routine. Gradually incorporate exercise and other activities into your daily schedule.
4. Deal with loss: Losing someone you love is devastating and it is natural to experience a roller coaster of emotions. It is important not to bottle up feelings and thoughts as this can lead to increased anxiety/depression, and also impact physical health. Share what you are going through with friends, family or a mental health professional.
5. Strengthen social connections: Older adults often become socially isolated, as they lose their friends or reduce participation in social activities, due to health or mobility issues. Whilst the pandemic has added to this challenge, it is important to remember there are no limits on the number of friendships in a lifetime. Social media is a great way to connect with other like-minded individuals irrespective of age, and joining an online class can introduce you to new people whilst maintaining social distancing protocols.
There are also things that we can do to for better mental health of older adults at a community level:
1. Create local mental health support groups: These can become spaces, where senior citizens share their experiences and gain support from those who are going through similar difficulties, e.g., COVID loss, loneliness
2. Encourage digital literacy: Many older adults are not comfortable with using technology/apps, and community drives to teach older adults can help empower them.
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3. Destigmatize seeking mental health support: Mental health issues are surrounded by stigma which often delays help seeking. It is essential to break this barrier by encouraging senior citizens to talk about their mental health issues and taking responsibility for helping them find the required support where necessary.
If we want to avert an increase in mental health issues amongst senior citizens, it is essential that we start focusing on mental well-being today.