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Published: Sunday, July 10, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Positive aging: Take charge of your mental health with these strategies for seniors

Untreated mental health problems can lead to poor physical health and a dramatically diminished quality of life, no matter what your age.
Seniors face particularly steep challenges, including stress, chronic pain, illness, the loss of loved ones and major life transitions such as retirement.
In fact, more than half of older adults believe that depression is normal, said Kamilia Dunsky, a geriatric mental health specialist with Senior Services of Snohomish County.
"Depression is not normal," Dunsky said. "Depression saps our energy and makes us feel worthless and hopeless and helpless, things that interfere with us being connected and advocating for our own needs."
Dunsky offered these mental health tips for seniors who want to stay happy and healthy.
Recognize depression
Even if you have no prior history of depression, it can strike as you age.
Physiological factors such as vitamin B12 deficiencies, side-effects from various medications or other biomedical issues associated with aging can cause depression, Dunsky said.
"It's not a moral weakness," Dunsky said. "We want to hold the bar high in terms of encouraging people to expect to have a meaningful, gratifying life across the lifespan."
Counseling, medication and even just awareness can help seniors fight depression.
Free in-home depression screenings and peer counseling are available to help Snohomish County seniors age 60 and older evaluate their mental health situation and figure out what kind of help they might need, Dunsky said.
Keep expectations realistic
Seniors often run into mental health trouble when their expectations about life and their abilities are impossible to meet, Dunsky said.
"A lot of us have pretty unrealistic expectations of what aging should be, expecting that we're going to stay independent and maintain perfect control and function and decision making," she said. "A lot of things happen along the way."
Dunsky often cites a quote from Michael J. Fox: "Happiness grows in direct proportion to acceptance and in inverse proportion to expectations."
Accept help
Allowing someone to step in and help -- and admitting it's impossible to do everything -- is what successful seniors do to stay strong, Dunsky said.
"Those are the people that actually stay independent," Dunsky said. "There is a little bit of a paradox there."
Having a strong sense of self-esteem, which can become less likely as we age and lose some of our abilities, helps.
"If a person feels good enough about themselves, they don't have to suffer so much the idea that they have to rely on somebody else," Dunsky said. "We need to move from that kind of John Wayne myth of independence to an image of interdependence.
"We need to expect that we are going to help each other and learn to feel OK about asking for help."
Stay connected
If a person is depressed or overwhelmed by life, they might seek isolation to hide their mood or protect others from their sad state.
But that is a bad idea, Dunsky said. Seniors must work to stay connected through hobbies, meals or other activities.
"We don't have great norms for grieving losses in this culture," Dunsky said. "People go into their apartment and close the door. That's when we really need each other. Isolation kills people."
That doesn't mean you have to become a social butterfly if you've never been one.
"Some people are really quite extroverted and others are introverted. They may not need to have the same degrees of social activity," Dunsky said. "Know yourself and what is the norm for you."
Need help?
Senior Services of Snohomish County works to promote independence and preserve the dignity of seniors age 60 and older.
Here are some of the mental health assistance programs available to Snohomish County seniors for free.
See www.sssc.org, call 800-422-2024 or 425-290-1260 or write seniorinfo@sssc.org for more information.
Depression screening: Residents who live in non-institutional settings are eligible for free in-home depression screenings, follow-up consultations, referrals, advocacy and short-term counseling support. Educational presentations focus on depression awareness, stress management and principles of healthy aging.
Peer counseling: Trained volunteer peer counselors, age 55 and older, meet weekly with seniors in their homes to help them deal with issues such as caregiver stress, loss of loved ones, chronic pain or illness, isolation from family and friends and other life changes or losses.
Mental health access: This new program helps seniors, families and caregivers access mental health and chemical dependency services for seniors in Snohomish County.
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