Peace of mind: Offsetting stress is a process worth the investment

Depression, anxiety, grief — these are some of the stress manifestations that can wreak havoc on older adults’ mental health. If left unchecked, that stress can often show up in physical ways, according to a local expert on aging.

“I think it’s important to know what stress means,” Cristina Pritchett, a geriatric psychiatrist with the Emory Brain Health Center’s Fuqua Center for Late-Life Depression, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It is a state of worry or mental tension that is caused by a difficult or challenging situation. We understand that low levels of stress are normal. In fact, stress has some survival values that prompt us to respond to threats. Higher levels of stress and negative ways to cope or respond can be pathologic and can lead to negative consequences.”

Addressing stress, whether it’s from minor things or life’s weightier pressures, has its challenges, but putting in the effort can offset more serious health challenges later.

AgeWell hosts its annual Senior Day at the MJCCA.

Credit: contributed by the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta

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Credit: contributed by the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta

Understanding stress

That process begins with understanding types of stress and how they arise.

“Minor things are challenges that are short-lived or transient, like maybe somebody runs out of gas, or they’re stuck in traffic or in the middle of a crowd or running late to an appointment,” Pritchett said.

Major stressors are the more persistent issues older adults must learn to navigate, like chronic illnesses.

“Dealing with these illnesses can be, per se, a stress-inducing factor,” Pritchett said.

An inability to live independently, drive safely, or manage one’s own routine and finances, she pointed out, can make a person’s everyday life less recognizable. This loss of autonomy can also cause ongoing tension.

Other contributing factors, she said, can be loneliness, which is common among seniors, and caregiving responsibilities, which often increase as couples grow older together. Transition points like death of loved ones, divorce or moving into a new living situation can be overwhelming, too.

“Retirement can be a stressing factor as well for a lot of our patients,” Pritchett said. “I think, especially, for those who don’t really have a hobby where they can dispose time.”

Senior Day is an annual mini-conference designed to introduce participants to AgeWell’s resources and activities.

Credit: Contributed by the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta

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Credit: Contributed by the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta

Offsetting factors

Rapid heart rate, muscle tension, cortisol production, inflammation — these are all physical signs of stress in the moment, Pritchett said. But over time, according to the Mayo Clinic, the compound result of stress responses can be longer-lasting health risks like anxiety and depression, sleep problems, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

So, what’s the best way to head off these more serious issues?

Pritchett has some recommendations:

Talk therapy: Approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy can allow patients to better understand their own thoughts and use adaptive thinking to lower their own stress levels. This option depends on a person’s cognitive status; memory problems will hamper engagement, she said.

Socializing: Keeping in touch with family and friends can reduce stress and increase resilience.

Exercise: Seniors need to tailor activities around any physical limitations, but moving around can stimulate production of endorphins, which Pritchett said have painkilling and mood-lifting properties.

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity,” Pritchett said. “Depending on the patient, they can add muscle strengthening activities at least two times per week.”

Diet: Keeping food intake healthy and balanced is key. The Mediterranean diet — lean meats, whole grain cereals, and fruits and vegetables — is a helpful guide, Pritchett said, and it can reduce stress-inducing inflammation.

Sleep: Adequate rest can bring down hormones related to cortisol, Pritchett said, and it can reduce anxiety and stress.

Support groups: Participants can join others facing similar circumstances, like caregiving, grief, or physical and mental health conditions.

Meditation: Mindfulness meditation can reduce stress levels by teaching practitioners to calm racing thoughts, relax muscles and reduce negative feelings.

AgeWell Atlanta Manager Jennifer Curry

Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Curry

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Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Curry

Finding local resources

Finding local resources can be the first step for older adults looking to offset stress. That support can look like social groups, health-related services or simply assistance with navigating everyday challenges. The search for fulfillment of basic needs can be distressing in and of itself, though. It’s a circumstance AgeWell Atlanta manager Jennifer Curry understands well.

“The people who call us,” she said, “99% of them are stressed.”

AgeWell is a four-agency collaborative, which, via its 1-866-243-9355 telephone line, connects seniors with local resources from recreational activities to social services to long-term care options and caregiver support groups.

“We provide what’s called warm hand-offs. So, if we have an hourlong conversation with someone, and then, they are looking for assistance, we maybe identify three or four things that they could possibly take advantage of,” Curry said. “If we can’t fulfill their needs within our network, we have a lot of trusted community partners that we also refer them to.”

Transportation resources can restore some degree of independence and a reduction in daily stress, she added.

And for a longer-term approach to calm and enrichment, there’s the Agewell Atlanta Neighborhood Program administered through the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta in Dunwoody.

Neighborhood programs run the gamut of social outings, educational classes and physical activities, including local museum trips, support groups, nutrition counseling, pickleball and chair yoga. There’s even Yiddish language instruction, with participants coming from all faiths and backgrounds, Curry said.

Neighborhoods classes, such as the language course, went virtual during the pandemic and have remained that way. Curry said it’s a great option for older adults looking to meet people before moving to the area.

“What we’ve had people tell us is that these events are invaluable for them because of the social connection,” she said.

Each year, AgeWell holds its annual Senior Day, a mini-conference that provides attendees with lunch and AgeWell resources. This year, the event will take place Thursday, April 11, at MJCCA, Curry said, and there will be a bus transportation option for those who need it.

Meditation practitioners at the Georgia Meditation Center in Dunwoody.

Credit: Georgia Meditation Center

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Credit: Georgia Meditation Center

Calming the mind

Coming to terms with aging and its inevitable transitions can affect a person’s state of mind, but regular meditation can help with perspective, according to Bee Intakanok, president of the the Georgia Meditation Center in Dunwoody. She’s seen firsthand the benefits of meditation, both at the center and while teaching the practice at Altria Senior Living in Milton.

Regular meditation, she explained, can allow practitioners to face life’s hecticness with response instead of reaction.

“When you meditate, you’re learning to calm and still your mind and be patient with yourself and listen to yourself and find out who you are by not doing anything,” she said. “When you actually make an effort to quiet your mind and stay in place and breathe or close your eyes, you start to learn to allow yourself that space that you need.”

The center holds nonreligious meditation sessions each week. A “community of spiritual friends” meditates, cultivates mindfulness and encourages one other in good deeds, Intakanok said.

Meditation participation later in life is sometimes the result of a more flexible mindset. Intakanok has seen a distinct receptiveness in the seniors she’s taught.

“They’re more open a lot of times because they’ve had more wisdom and more experience in life. They’re just a lot more willing to try different things and look at things in a different perspective. I think younger people aren’t always there yet,” she said. “Seniors are looking for more substance and more depth and more peace of mind.”

AgeWell Atlanta Senior Day

9:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Thursday, April 11 at Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, 5342 Tilly Mill Rd., Atlanta, $15. Call 678-812-4010 and mention you saw this story in the AJC for $10 AgeWell rate.

Georgia Meditation Center meditation sessions

7 p.m.-8:30 p.m., Wednesdays. Georgia Meditation Center, 4522 Tilly Mill Rd., Atlanta. 770-452-1111.