Healthy Beginnings

Making every day count: Coping with stressors of late-life depression, aging

Exercising and staying physically fit can help foster positive mental health, especially during your older years.

Congratulations! You’re 65 or 70 and successfully retired, or, alternately, maybe in your early 60s and looking toward that vast expanse of green grass just over the horizon.

Either way, you’ve amassed a reasonably comfortable nest egg, and you’re looking forward to doing all the things you put off over the years.

If you’re not only employed, but also a wife and mother, the bonus package of retirement and relief from the vast sea of responsibilities you had may be even greater.

If you were a wife and mother, think of all the things, now that hubby is retiring, that you put off and now hope to do.

Not so fast. Hold on a minute. Just when that bright, shining future starts to look so good, you’re also faced with the reality of getting older.

Recently, a friend of mine — healthy, successful and retired who lives for year-round golf — was increasingly short of breath. He was rushed to the hospital where he learned he had heart failure. It came as a shock, both physical and emotional: failing health, something he never considered before.

Turns out that retirement and aging have their own set of challenges, challenges you must master, lest they drag you down.

Aging invariably ushers in physical and mental health challenges that, if you were fortunate, you previously escaped. But that may be no longer possible now that you’ve reached your “golden years.”

Stresses associated with aging include having to manage chronic illness, death or disability of a spouse; becoming a caregiver; separation from family and friends; changes in living arrangements; changes in finances after retirement; and/or for some 10 percent of seniors, elder abuse.

The reality of aging requires acceptance and adjustment. That body you always trusted now starts to show wear and tear; muscles hurt, joints ache, a little short of breath, everything seems to slow down, even your mental agility.

A spouse of many years is aging slower or faster than you. Accommodation, patience, understanding and acceptance of a new reality are now in order.

Long-time friends, former golf buddies or mothers who raised their children with you move on, deteriorate or die.

And the children you raised to adulthood have moved out and on; some provide support, comfort and assistance as you slow down, but some prove indifferent or worse.

So, what can be done to cope with these stressors of aging? Surprisingly, a lot.

Here’s a list of things you want to focus on. While every situation is different, the inexorable passage of time comes to all of us.

First, stay as physically fit as your circumstances allow. Exercise and keep moving. Join an exercise class or a walking group. Remember — use it or lose it. Exercise fights off the ravages of aging. It also aids in mental fitness and is one of the best counterweights to depression.

Next, socialize. Just being around other people helps stymie depression. Play cards. Join a reading group. Check out your Senior Center.

Also, stay engaged with family. Make sure you’re included. Visit often, or be visited. Make it a routine event, but make sure you’re not just there to babysit the grandkids while Mom and Dad go out.

Stay mentally sharp by reading and keeping up with the news. Or, take a class at the community college, sharpen your puzzle skills and watch a movie with others and discuss it.

Take up a new hobby or extend your skill at an old one. Maybe get a pet. Pets turn out to help seniors engage socially and decrease feelings of anxiety and depression.

Stay involved in a religious community or renew an old faith. Volunteer.

Pay careful attention to your alcohol intake. Alcohol abuse and depression tend to cohabit; each makes the other worse. So, one or two drinks in the evening are fine. Sitting in front of the television at 3 p.m. while imbibing your first “evening” cocktail on your way to four or five is not, however, and should alert you that you’re sliding down a dangerous slope.

Also, make a point of saying “no” to your physician’s well-intended offer of opiates for pain control, with the exception of a few days to a week for acute post-surgical pain. Chronic pain should almost never be treated with opiates, as they lead to all sorts of physical and mental complications, including addiction.

Make every day count. The clock is ticking.

Give back to your community. Assist at your local grade school, or the soup kitchen. Giving back adds meaning to life and is one of the surest paths to feeling useful and fulfilled.

As it turns out, there is a lot seniors can offer each other and the community at large. Make time a friend, look forward and make each day count.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at adwhyman43@gmail.com.