How mental health affects seniors, and what they can do to maintain a healthy mind.
Along with the mounds and mounds of grayish, slushy snow, Minnesota winters can sometimes bring about seasonal depression or an increase in sadness among its residents. Some of the nasty winter’s most vulnerable targets are seniors who often see the most harmful effects of depression and mental health struggles.
According to the St. Paul-based Training to Serve—which offers tools and resources to assist in improving the quality of life for GLBT seniors—a 2007 study performed by the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging found that many agencies offering assistance to seniors are not adequately prepared to serve elder GLBT individuals. Meanwhile, North Memorial Health noted in 2016 that GLBT health outcomes are worse than the rest of the population due to avoiding primary care because of stigmatization, fear of uncomfortable conversations, and a lack of cultural competency on the providers’ part.
Furthermore, per the National Institute on Mental Health, GLBT people are at a higher risk for having depression, anxiety, and substance abuse issues.
Allison Bakke, president of the Twin Cities-based Above & Beyond Senior Services, says the cold months of winter make it hard for seniors to stay engaged.
“Due to the cold, snow, and ice, sometimes it’s just easier to not push yourself to go out,” she says. “Also, there is an increase in Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) due to our decrease in sunlight, poor weather conditions, and fewer hours of daylight.”
Bakke says that the lack of sun and Vitamin D can also lead to seasonal depression.
“It is important to have a conversation with your doctor to help differentiate between chronic depression, SAD, or other medical conditions,” she says.
Some red flags for mental health issues among seniors include isolation, retracting from hobbies or activities, increased vocalization of negative thoughts, changes in sleeping, grooming, and hygiene habits, changes in eating habits due to unplanned changes in weight, and memory loss.
“If you begin to notice changes with memory or feelings of depression/isolation/loneliness, see your primary care doctor quickly—talking to a professional can offer guidance, support, and if appropriate medications to help improve these areas of your life. Depression is not a normal part of aging, so getting help is critical,” says Bakke.
Bakke says that healthcare providers typically see depression and anxiety most commonly in seniors during the winter months. The difficulty of aging culminating with health issues and potential losses in relationships can often lead to worry and a change in seniors’ outlook, which typically becomes more negative.
“If left untreated, seniors are at greater risk for further injuries, disability, and even death,” Bakke says. According to the CDC, adult males over the age of 85 have the highest suicide rate in the nation, and the suicide rate for older adults is higher than the general population.
Finding a balance is a great way seniors can work towards maintaining a healthy mind. Routine exercise, good nutrition, and cognitively stimulating activities can help keep seniors engaged and happy.
“Try new things—go dancing, take an art class, see a play, try a new restaurant. Have a diverse and multigenerational friend group. Be very open with your most trusted friends and family—open communication leads to problem solving,” Bakke says.
Bakke also suggests that seniors spend more time with friends and family, especially during the winter months when it might seem easier to just stay inside in isolation. Simply inviting friends over to talk, playing card games, cooking a meal, or making it a habit to read daily can help improve mental health. A healthy mind can also be maintained when people aren’t around by listening to upbeat, positive music, adding lighting in around the house, opening the blinds, and turning off the TV, especially if upsetting news coverage is causing undue stress.
Engaging with the community through support groups is also another easy way to stay connected to others while learning more about maintaining a healthy mind.
“There are support groups throughout the Twin Cities that focus on specific chronic diseases, for example, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. Many local senior centers offer programing with both social and educational components for health and wellness for the senior community,” Bakke says.
She also points out the importance of multi-generational engagements with people, which can be done through organizations like the University of Minnesota’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) or the University of St. Thomas’ Selim Center.
GLBT seniors seeking mental health assistance and resources in Minnesota can also reach out to groups like Training to Serve, which offers a Twin Cities Metro Aging Resource Guide for the GLBT community.
Depression and anxiety can affect seniors more strongly than many people know, especially during the cold, dark months of winter. If you’re a senior, reach out to others in the community—it’s likely they are feeling a similar way. If there’s a senior in your life, make sure you engage with them and encourage them to try new things, exercise, and participate in the activities and hobbies that they usually enjoy.