Mental Health Matters at Every Age—Especially for Seniors

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A elderly woman. Photo via Pixabay

By Michael Hopkins

Imagine sharing a home with your family of five, only to live long enough to see that number drop to one: yourself. After spending so many happy years living with others, how do you adjust to living alone?

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This is the challenge faced by many of San Diego’s seniors. As our county’s senior population continues to grow, more older adults are finding themselves alone for days, even weeks at a time. In fact, according to San Diego County’s Senior Health Report, 42 percent of older adults in San Diego are living in isolation.

The effects of living in isolation can be mentally devastating at any age — but even more so for seniors who may no longer have the ability to transport themselves to social settings, have friends dying, lack social connections previously provided through work, or whose families may be too far away to help. Anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns can result from loneliness or as the ability to function normally decreases due to age or illness. As a result, further diminished physical health may also occur.

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To make matters worse, increased isolation and depression among older adults has led to higher suicide rates. According to the county’s report, suicide is the leading cause of non-natural death among San Diego adults agesd 55-64, and the second leading cause of non-natural death among adults aged 75 and older.

There are many measures older adults and their loved ones can take to help prevent the negative mental effects of living in isolation.

Bruce Sachs, a clinical psychologist for Jewish Family Service who runs free workshops for older adults, explains that developing a positive self-concept is an important and fundamental beginning to healthy emotional and mental adjustments during the aging process.

“An important mental component that leads to healthy aging is maintaining an attitude of flexibility. Change in all of its forms occurs throughout our lives but is especially significant among older adults. We must adapt to this change, so our lives can remain fulfilling and have purpose,” Sachs said. “For example, we can try new things. The famous painter Grandma Moses started painting at 78 after becoming a widow at 67, and continued painting until she was 101.”

Sachs urges older adults to fill their lives with activities that make them happy. This can mean sustaining personal interests, like gardening or playing bridge, or finding new activities, like volunteering, that have the potential for both continuing and increasing life satisfaction.

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At JFS, we have a number of programs and services to help older adults of all faiths and backgrounds maintain their independence and social lives. Older adults can also take advantage of our social and wellness centers located throughout the county (including the Balboa Avenue Older Adult Center and College Avenue Center) that offer daily, interactive programing and hot lunches.

If a participant needs a ride to get there, we are home to San Diego’s largest senior transportation network, On the Go, which provides door-to-door rides to personal appointments, group shuttles to activities and more. Or, when getting out of the house isn’t an option, our Bikkur Holim Friendly Visitor program brings volunteers right into the homes of homebound older adults to engage in meaningful
conversation and friendship.

Counseling and bereavement services may also be beneficial for older adults struggling with loss or mental health issues. JFS and many other organizations throughout the county offer services to help individuals sort out challenges in their lives and find the energy and strength to move forward. For a full directory of programs and services available throughout San Diego County that encourage social interaction and promote wellness among seniors, visit the county’s website.

It shouldn’t be a secret that mental health matters at every age — but for seniors living in isolation, a positive mental outlook is of utmost importance to continue leading active, fulfilled lives. Any older adult living in isolation is encouraged to seek out new opportunities to engage with others and try new things, and encourage their loved ones to actively help in the search.

JFS is also always looking for volunteers to provide assisted transportation, meal delivery, or simply a friendly face to seniors in need. If you’re searching for enriching ways to help older adults within your community, please consider donating your time and support to this growing population.

Michael Hopkins is CEO of Jewish Family Service of San Diego, a nonprofit that helps thousands of San Diegans each year move toward self-sufficiency and build better lives.

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