It’s been said that life is a game. But unlike most games, the rules keep changing. The passing of loved ones, health challenges, stressful events and feeling lonely may change how seniors view life and affect their emotional health. While these changes can be unsettling, a wealth of free mental health resources for seniors are available. We’ll begin by reviewing nine tips to improve mental health. Then we’ll share some warning signs to watch for, along with contact information for some key resources.
9 mental health tips for seniors
In addition to physical changes, it’s important to think about the many psychological effects of aging. Here are nine things you can do to promote better mental health:
- Keep moving
- Stay sharp
- Give diet its due
- Bounce back better
- Stress less
- Sleep well
- Strengthen social connections
- Live with loss
- Collect your thoughts
1. Keep moving
It’s common knowledge that exercise boosts physical health. But did you know it benefits mental and emotional health, too? Research shows that moving your body can help you feel less stressed, have more energy and experience better sleep.
Here are some exercise thought starters to help you get moving, become more physically fit and lift your mood:
- Walking, bicycling and dancing.Endurance activities increase your breathing, get your heart pumping and boost chemicals in your body that may improve mood.
- This mind and body practice typically combines physical postures, breathing exercises and relaxation.
- Tai chi.This moving meditation involves shifting the body slowly, gently and precisely while breathing deeply.
- Activities you enjoy.Whether gardening, playing tennis, kicking around a soccer ball with your grandchildren or something else, choose an activity you enjoy, not one you have to do. Oh, and if you need motivation to get off the couch, try exercising with a friend.
- Follow the path of least resistance. For example, you don’t need to belong to a gym or own any equipment to step out your front door and go for a walk. Think you don’t have time? Break your walks into smaller segments – even if it’s just 10 minutes. Substitute a passive activity like watching TV for a short walk.
2. Stay sharp
Physical activity is just one way to keep your brain sharp as you age.
Have you heard about neuroplasticity? It’s a fancy-sounding scientific term that means the brain has a lifelong capacity to change and learn new things.
Here are some ways you can encourage mental sharpness and rewire your brain:
- Activate your brain. Turn memory improvement into a game by doing jigsaw puzzles or crossword puzzles, or read a book you find interesting and stimulating.
- Create some art or music. It’s never too late to learn how to play an instrument or pick up a brush and paint. Get going with some free online tutorials for beginners, like learning how to draw or play guitar. If you don’t feel particularly artistic or musical, appreciating the arts counts, too. You can tour the world’s great art museums by going online. Or pull up a playlist and enjoy your favorite tunes. Just the act of seeing inspiring artwork or listening to music regularly can boost brain neuroplasticity.
- Quiet the mind. When life becomes stressful, meditation and prayer can help settle the mind and help with focus when you return to a task.
3. Give diet its due
A properly balanced diet supports mental health in some key ways:
- Fruits and veggies. These are loaded with antioxidants, which can reduce the risk of depression. Antioxidants also promote mental health by taming inflammation. Plus, the vitamins, minerals and fiber in fruits and vegetables encourage both physical and mental health.
- Found in meat, dairy, eggs, seafood, beans and tofu, protein helps boost tryptophan levels, which increases serotonin, a well-known happiness booster.
- Healthy fats. Fats that contribute to health include olive oil, fatty fish (like salmon, sardines and mackerel), nuts and seeds. Healthy fats promote brain health and lower inflammation levels.
- Speaking of balance. The easiest way to a balanced meal is to divide your plate into three sections: 25% protein, such as lean meats, seafood or vegetable proteins like beans and tofu; 25% whole grains, including wheat, oats and rice; and the largest portion on your plate – 50% – belongs to vegetables and fruit.
- What to avoid. Proceed slowly with food and drinks with added sugar and refined carbohydrates, including bread, pasta, muffins and cake. Control alcohol intake, too.
4. Bounce back better
As you grow older, there will be ups and downs. To deal with the down times, work on becoming better at bouncing back. Being more resilient will help you stay emotionally balanced when life throws you a curveball. Here are a few ways to develop resilience:
- Count your blessings. Think about everything you are grateful for. Focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want.
- Get real with your feelings. Learn to express yourself by saying what you mean. Staying bottled up is bad for your emotional welfare.
- Accept reality. This doesn’t mean you like everything that happens – it just means you acknowledge the truth of each situation. Learning to accept the things you can’t change will go a long way toward becoming more resilient.
5. Stress less
There is a difference between everyday stress – which comes and goes and is common – and chronic stress, where you feel like you are on edge and worried all the time. There are many techniques to control and decrease stress, including:
- Increasing physical activity
- Practicing relaxation exercises
- Spending more time outdoors, in nature
- Listening to your favorite music
- Engaging in enjoyable hobbies
- Enjoying quality time with friends
- Spending time with pets
- Learning to use simple breathing exercises to help calm nerves
6. Sleep well
It’s hard to be at your best when you’re too tired. Sleep is a major factor in mental and emotional health – on a par with diet and exercise. Here are some basic tips on sleeping better:
- Practice healthy sleep habits. Be consistent. Try going to bed at the same time each night.
- Is snoring interrupting your sleep? If you wake up in the night or wake up tired, snoring might be the culprit. Make a doctor’s appointment to make sure you don’t have sleep apnea.
- Ease the transition. Thirty minutes before bedtime, turn off the TV, turn down the lights and avoid heavy discussions. Do relaxing activities only, like reading, listening to soft music or trying progressive muscle relaxation.
- Avoid napping in the afternoon. This can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep later on.
- Create the right conditions. Too much light, too much noise or too many temperature changes in the night might be preventing you from a restful night’s sleep. Think about your bedroom environment and adjust.
7. Strengthen social connections
Staying in touch with friends, family and neighbors is more important than you might imagine. Try to seek out new ways to stay engaged with life.
Keeping strong social connections:
- Helps prevent loneliness
- Gives us a way to express ourselves
- Protects mental and physical health
- Can even lengthen our lives!
8. Live with loss
The loss of a loved one changes your life. Grief is normal. There is no timetable for how long it takes, and no playbook that outlines the right way to mourn. Learn how to handle loss and move forward with your life:
- Be honest about how you are feeling
- Know that grief is unpredictable and may bring up strong emotions
- Understand that no two people grieve exactly alike
- Ask for support from family and friends
- Be kind to yourself
9. Collect your thoughts
Have you heard about mindfulness? Simply put, mindfulness means paying attention to what’s going on around you – and inside you. When we’re stressed about something, it’s common to push through it, suppress our feelings and ignore what’s going through our minds. Here are some thoughts on becoming more mindful and the value of doing so:
- Make time to sit quietly. Schedule a time each day to turn off the TV, silence your devices and just be with your thoughts. You can start with as little as five minutes.
- Pay attention. Be with the present moment. Observe what’s going through your mind without judging it.
- It’s normal for the mind to wander. Mindfulness isn’t about controlling your mind or quieting your thoughts. It just means paying attention to whatever comes up and cutting yourself some slack when your mind wanders.
Mental health warning signs
As you look over these cautionary signs, ask yourself if you or someone you know is experiencing any of them. If so, be sure to check out the list of resources in the next section.
Sleeping too much or too little. If it’s hard to fall asleep, or it’s difficult to get out of bed, ask a healthcare professional to help determine if the cause is physical or emotional.
Losing your zest for life. If you’re feeling empty or can’t generate enthusiasm for what used to make you happy, it might be a symptom of depression. Don’t ignore it.
Feeling “less than.” Having an off day or feeling blue because you got some bad news is different than feeling sad or hopeless on a regular basis.
Overwhelming emotions. Feeling worried or stressed occasionally is one thing, but ongoing anger, irritability or moodiness could be symptoms of underlying emotional issues.
Trouble concentrating. If your ability to focus changed recently, or you’re prone to feeling restless or on edge, have it checked out.
Physical changes. Sometimes, physical symptoms are related to emotional or mental conditions. This can include fatigue, headaches, digestive issues, ongoing pain or changes in appetite.
Leaning on alcohol or drugs. Misusing substances often signals an emotional problem that must be addressed.
Suicidal thoughts. If you or someone you know has reached this point, stop what you are doing and reach out to a medical professional or suicide hotline right now.
Mental health resources for older adults
Millions of aging Americans face mental and emotional challenges each year. Fortunately, a wealth of helpful (and possibly lifesaving) mental health resources for seniors are just a phone call or click away.
- National Institute of Mental Health
The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) webpage is a perfect place to start if you’re not sure where to turn.
- Suicide Hotline
In crisis? Don’t wait to seek help! Dial 911 – or call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. The lifeline offers 24/7 services for anyone going through severe emotional distress.
- Help for Veterans
- Information on Stress and Anxiety
The American Psychological Association provides an informative article about coping with stress.
- Treatment and Referral Helpline
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a national helpline providing free, confidential treatment referrals for individuals and families dealing with mental and substance abuse.
Take steps to improve your mental health
Looking after your body and mind will go a long way toward improving your mental and emotional health. Basic practices like diet and exercise, keeping in touch with family and friends, decreasing stress and learning how to live with setbacks can help make your older years a special time of life.