Good Times and Bad

There are many myths about aging that are being challenged in today’s world of older adults. One of my favorite elders, who is 80, when asked how he is doing responds, I’m in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in. Although aging, he strives to protect his body strength, to stay engaged with people, and learn something new every day. In the United States, attitudes about aging are changing dramatically.

Large scale surveys of America’s seniors suggest they feel pretty good about themselves: forty nine percent aged 65 to 69 said they were living the best years of their lives. Forty four percent in their 70’s, said the same thing. Senior health and quality of life are on the radar, now that the boomers are emerging into the age bracket of 65+. Dr. Robert Butler, president of the International Longevity Center, says that medical advances have been crucial in helping Americans age better: drugs to combat old killers like high blood pressure and high cholesterol have made a huge difference.

He is cautious to add that depression has become a major threat to seniors’ well being. Seniors have the highest suicide rates among all groups. Major depression is an under-recognized, and under-treated mental health problem. A startling Chicago study suggested that, up to 20 percent of elderly suicide victims had visited their physicians within 24 hours of taking their lives. Up to 84% had visited their physician within a month of their suicide. There is now a push to prepare Primary Care Physicians to screen for depression.

A major barrier is that Medicare only pays for depression screening programs. It does not pay for psychological treatment for people who may be vulnerable, but don’t yet have a mental health diagnosis.The future is aimed at promoting health, and preventing serious illness. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is studying how seniors can prevent depression, by teaching them how to cope with their illnesses. Director of the university’s Aging Institute says, Our goal is to teach people ways to regulate their mood, protect themselves from downward emotional spirals, and counteract the learned helplessness at the core of depression. Many situations can contribute to the feeling of being cut off, and lonely: Living alone due to the death of a spouse, the loss of friends, and the loss of hearing and/or driving privileges. Over time, seniors can lose their social confidence, which further contributes to additional feelings of isolation.

If it hurts to move, then our first response as humans is to not move. With changes in a seniors mobility and eyesight, they can start to get caught in a downward spiral that takes place over a couple of years. They may begin to only live in 3 rooms of their home. Not being mobile contributes to not making the effort to go to the store to buy groceries or prepare food, so people often end up eating poorly. Dining is a social experience, and eating alone offers little to establish an appetite. Inactive and under nourished seniors lose physical muscle mass, and strength.

So what is the way out? Exercise, good nutrition, and a rich social life with friends and family are often what doctors and researchers alike prescribe for seniors. Start moving (with your doctors permission of course) a little each day, and a little more the next day. Get your pain (physical and mental) under control. Talk to your physician about medication, physical therapy, or even trying meditation, and acupuncture. Dont give up; there is always another solution.  Reach out, get involved, feed your heart, and your spirit. Lastly, dont forget that we are social beings. You will find fun, humor, and new hope.