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Why mental health in the elderly needs more attention
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Why mental health in the elderly needs more attention

Social interactions, stimulating activities and happy times are the best ways to care for the mental health of lonely seniors.
old man getting support from a child
Representational image
| shutterstock

Dr Kamla Sirauthia, a retired teacher in Lucknow, loves to read. Reading, she says, is her constant companion. Her other pastimes are conversations on WhatsApp and watching her favourite Netflix series.

What is special about her is that she is 91 and enjoys the intellectual stimulation and the sense of companionship that reading and social interactions give her. Happy that she has stayed abreast of contemporary technologies and modes of recreation at her age, Dr Sirauthia says, “It keeps the feelings of loneliness at bay.”

She owes the depth of her knowledge and empathy with people to not only the wisdom of her years but also to her zest to learn new things. “Reading keeps my mind sharp,” she says.

Engaging the mind

While Dr Sirauthia is lucky to have activities that keep her engaged and mentally energised, many elderly often struggle with loneliness and lack of engagement. Not having a hobby, or activity to occupy their time and mind, combined with social isolation and deteriorating vision and health are often overlooked aspects of mental health in the elderly.

Happiest Health takes a hard look at the mental health-related concerns of the elderly, the section of the population whose problems are often ignored.

The 2016 National Mental Health Survey of India conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru, found that individuals aged 60 years and above exhibit a higher incidence of mild and serious mental problems compared to adults aged 18 and above. Mental health conditions such as substance addiction, depression, mood swings, and anxiety were common.

Unhappy minds

According to Bengaluru-based psychotherapist Mamatha Rajesh, older adults face deeper issues such as pessimism, cynicism, loneliness, regret, anger, lack of social support or mental stimulation. “These issues can make them wither away inside.”

Seniors’ mental health requires delicate handling, sprinkled with interactions with family and friends, some amount of physical activity and intellectual stimulation. Without these essential elements, their mental health may wilt like a flower. Given appropriate attention, senior can perk up and thrive, like adding water to drooping flowers.

Sense of isolation

Separation from or bereavement of friends and loved ones, inactivity due to retirement, and age-related physical limitations can contribute to a sense of isolation and disconnection. Rajesh emphasises the importance of dealing with feelings of loneliness.

“Loneliness is something that can eat away at a person. It is much more debilitating for an older person than for young people,” she says.

Dr Mathew Varghese, senior professor of psychiatry at St John’s Medical College, Bengaluru, says, “Feelings of loneliness combined with factors such as the death of a spouse and poor living conditions can often worsen pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or dementia.”

Dr Sirauthia says, “People of my age often feel lonely left out and ignored. This sense of loneliness is common in the elderly, and it’s the important thing [for those around them] to understand.”

Ways to overcome loneliness

However, it is also essential to remember that there are ways to combat loneliness and its associated feelings.

  • Staying connected with loved ones
  • Participating in social activities
  • Seeking out support groups or therapy

Patience and understanding

Dr Sirauthia says the clash of differing worldviews between the older and the younger generations can further the elderly. “We come from a different time, so there are often clashes and frustrations between the elderly and young people. This is where both sides need to be sensitive and patient [towards each other] and remember where the other person is coming from,” she says.

She says the younger generation needs to appreciate the history, experience and context of the aged. Similarly, the elders need to accept and evolve with the younger generation and its way of life.

Shifting sands

“With more and more instances of their children moving away to other countries, family support is dwindling for the elderly.” says Rajesh.

Today, a feeling of abandonment is common among the elderly. When the spouse, siblings or close contemporaries pass away or children move away,the elderly face an overwhelming sense of loneliness and isolation. This often leads to a wide range of mental health concerns such as depression or anxiety.

Think of an elderly woman who has lost her husband of 50 years and whose children live far away. She may feel like she has been abandoned by those she loves most, and this can lead to sadness and despair.

Dr Varghese emphasises the importance of having a social support system. “Having social support in old age is important because being in touch with other people offers stimulation, an emotional connection, saves them from loneliness, and also offers financial, emotional, and other kinds of support.”

“A lot of senior people hesitate to take up new hobbies and feel they are too old for it. But [they should] overcome that mindset and and stay happy by finding new interests,” suggests Dr Sirauthia.

Clubs and communities

Dr Varghese says, “It is good to get involved with organisations or social communities which connect one with like-minded people, for example, a community for senior citizens. It could help them to join social communities like religious groups.”

Digital divide

Today, not all seniors have the means or knowledge to use new electronic devices, smartphones, e-commerce or app-based technologies, and this leads them to further feel isolated and left behind.

In such a context, Rajesh says it is important for them to ponder certain questions like – `What can I do to remain relevant in this age?’ `What can I learn to remain connected with my society?’  It is important for the older people to find their own ways to adapt to changes, stay updated with technology and remain connected with the world they live in.

“It is true that a lot of older people are reluctant to learn various new things and engage with technology. But I have been very lucky to have my family members patiently teach me how to navigate these,” says Dr Sirauthia, who enjoys her WhatsApp group chats and watching her favourite movies and shows.

If the computer and the smartphone seem challenging, experts say elders can still stay connected with their circles and beat loneliness through regular phone calls, visits, or joining in social events and activities.

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