Taking care of your mental health

Metro Atlantans share how they cope

Grace Arland, a Dunwoody resident, says she sometimes feels as if she could easily slip into depression or at the very least, a lonely sadness. The retired educator knows all too well that mental health is something to take seriously. Her mother had bouts of depression and some of her friends do as well.

“But I try to stay positive and stay active,” Arland said. “When I feel like I may be getting a little sad I’ll plan to visit a friend or maybe meet my daughter for lunch or for shopping, something that gets me out of the house and interacting with other people. That always makes me feel better.”

Without knowing it, Arland has tapped into one of the ways experts say aging adults can lower their risk of mental health conditions.

“Having an active social life is critical,” said Regina Koepp, a board-certified clinical psychologist, and founder of the Center for Mental Health & Aging. “That doesn’t mean you have to see a ton of people and go out all the time. It just means that you need to have a few really good friendships or interactions in which you feel valued and heard.”

Koepp said it’s a myth to think it’s normal to be anxious or depressed.

“As we age there’s a phenomenon that happens. As we age we become more psychologically resilient,” she said. “We have better coping skills for managing stress. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have mental health problems. About one in five adults 65 or older have a mental health condition whether it’s depression, sleep disorders, dementia, substance abuse issues and others.”

The majority of older adults who have a mental health condition aren’t receiving care for it, she said. One reason is that there isn’t a social norm to talk about your mental health concerns openly. It’s more of a norm to keep it private.

“But some of the bigger issues are the stigma attached to mental health,” she said. “People don’t want to be singled out as having mental health concerns. That’s a major barrier.”

After Ray Price, 64, lost his wife, he said he expected the grieving process to last a while but didn’t expect the loneliness that led to a deep depression.

“I thought because I have lots of friends that I’d be fine,” the longtime Peachtree City resident said. “But I realized I needed something else. I started seeing a therapist and I also signed up for a gym membership. I think those two things really saved me. I have something to look forward to. And I have an outlet to express what I’m feeling.”

Koepp agreed that physical activity is also a great way to combat some mental health issues. She said for five days a week, 30 minutes a day, older adults should engage in brisk walking and strength-based training such as lifting weights, of course they should consult a physician prior to engaging in these activities.

“Activities that strengthen muscles have shown to lower the chances of mental health issues,” she said.

Her suggestions are backed by science.

“We know that older people who live a physically active lifestyle have lower rates of dementia and lower rates of mental health concerns,” she said. “Nutrition is also important. Healthy diets that have been shown to reduce the risk of mental health issues such as dementia include the Dash Diet, Mediterranean Diet, Norwegian Diet and Okinawan diet.”

Koepp also suggests having a sense of meaning or purpose. She said volunteering or having a hobby of some sort is important.

“Some people may enjoy caring for their grandchildren, others may find joy in animals, volunteering, traveling, something that brings you a sense of meaning,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be something huge, just something that’s meaningful to you.”

“The stereotype is that depression is normal with age and that’s just not true,” she said. “People believe that, so they’re less likely to seek care. Dementia is not normal with age. It’s a good idea to meet with your doctor if you’re experiencing memory loss and other symptoms. The problem is if we believe those stereotypes then we tend not to seek out help when those symptoms occur.”

A good place to start if you think you may be experiencing mental health issues is with your doctor, Koepp said. Sometimes mental health concerns can be a sign of something else, perhaps a medical issue that’s creating other symptoms.

The Center for Mental Health and Aging has a directory of providers who specialize in older adults.

When told that Lavern Boling, a 59-year-old retired nurse in Decatur, uses social outlets to stay mentally healthy, Koepp was glad. Boling said she finds things in her day or week to look forward to.

“I think little things like going to my grocery store or to the flower market sort of lift my spirits,” said the grandmother of four. They make me happy. I like going to church on Wednesdays and Sundays and seeing people I know. And I like walking my dog around my block or at the park and seeing people.”

“Scheduling joy and happiness, I love that,” Koepp said. “It doesn’t have to be anything grand, just find little things that you can look forward to that make you feel good.”

The important takeaway is that we need to shift the way we think about aging and what it means to grow older, Koepp said. Research shows older adults who have a positive view of aging live longer.

“You can do it by looking around and seeing which older adults are thriving and look at them as models,” she said. “I think you can also begin to shift your thinking by looking at the things you blame on growing older. Maybe you forgot to do something or you misplaced an item. Lots of people say they’re having a senior moment. But that happens to everyone, not just older people. If you believe you’re declining, that will inform other things you’re willing to do and not do. Mental health issues are highly treatable. There’s no reason to lose hope. There’s so much you can do for your mental health.”