Social involvement and mental health

Hillary Clinton is a role model for older Canadians as she continues to be socially involved and mentally agile despite her age.

The digital universe is bursting with information about older adults, both good and bad. On the one hand, medical researchers are delving into why there is an explosion of seniors suffering from depression and anxiety. And on the other hand, older adults are just about everywhere on headline news, running for president of the United States and possibly even vice-president on the same ground-breaking ticket.

In Saturday’s Globe and Mail, columnist Elizabeth Renzetti referred to the Democratic presumptive nominee for President, Hillary Clinton, and her new powerful ally Elizabeth Warren as “raging grannies.” In my books what better compliment could there be?

Both Clinton and Warren, tested by years of professional and political adversity, are two tough and accomplished women, both over 65 years old, active mothers and grandmothers as well as being top-notch politicians. If Sophie Trudeau needs another nanny to help out with the kids as she performs her duties, can you imagine what life was like for Hillary when Chelsea was a child? Remember, she had Bill to manage.

As Warren remarked on the Rachel Maddow show when she endorsed Clinton, “She’s out there, she’s a fighter, she’s tough. I think this is what we need…For 25 years she been taking the incomings. The right wing has thrown everything they possibly can at her. A lot of people would hang up their spurs, they’d say, ‘I’ve had enough.’ And she doesn’t. She gets back up and gets back in the fight.”

The question becomes, what makes some older people fighters while others experience late onset depression and disappear into the woodwork? Some would answer genetics. Others would say good luck, wealth, education, good marriages and successful children, but in the end, it’s difficult to decipher what one factor keeps older people going strong other than staying socially involved.

Being involved means different things to different people, but community connections, along with keeping in touch with former colleagues, or making new friends based on freshly-acquired interests or hobbies appears to make a huge difference to how well older adults thrive in retirement. For some it might mean taking up a part-time job or volunteering, for others joining a book club or a sports and exercise centre. Staying active and engaged is what matters. Being involved is what keeps people from getting depressed.

At a recent symposium at McMaster University in Hamilton, “Depression and Anxiety in Older Adults,” broadcaster Michael Landsberg, who suffers from depression, stated that more than 350-million people worldwide are affected by this illness.

“Depression robs us of self-esteem and our confidence, “ Landsberg explained. “Depression is the cumulative affect of little hits and tiny changes. People believe that the person that they once were is gone.”

Landsberg admits that he hated his depressed self because he could not experience joy. “It’s the feeling of being totally lost and blaming yourself for it.”

It might not be fair to compare the indestructible Hillary Clinton to someone experiencing clinical depression, but what is fair is uncovering new ways to combat depression and what can be done to help older adults who find themselves “experiencing no joy” during the retirement years.

At the McMaster symposium, Dr. Doug Oliver, a family doctor with a special interest in long term care for seniors, spoke with great respect and understanding for seniors who are suffering from mental illness or what he terms brain illness. Oliver believes that the first and most important step is “embracing your own vulnerability and admitting that you need help.” But the odds against seniors seeking out treatment are high.

Unfortunately, most seniors believe some level of depression is a natural part of the ageing process and accept their symptoms without finding a solution to the suffering.

The reason they don’t seek treatment, Oliver contends, is that older adults living with mental health issues are susceptible to discrimination just because they are older.

In Canada, aging is a success story, states Oliver. Life expectancy is 82 years, but Oliver stresses that this success story is often couched in derogatory terms such as “the white wave” and “the silver tsunami,” while he believes it should be part of our cultural heritage of which we are most proud.

It’s complicated why Canadians aren’t celebrating senior success stories. A good part of the reason, according to Dr. Oliver, is that front line health care professionals do discriminate against older adults. “The only way I know how to stop that is to put the person ahead of the illness.”

Then there’s the media. Oliver suggests that for the public the news is the primary source of information about mental illness and most news stories focus on crime and murders where mental illness is portrayed as the source of the event. Mental illness and criminality are intertwined and that makes it embarrassing for older adults to seek treatment.

In this negative environment, more than 90 per cent of older adults suffering from depression don’t get help. The symptoms that are most often reported by older adult to their doctors involve physical pain rather than emotional pain.

According to Dr. Oliver, “It’s far more important from my point of view that I know that someone in my patient’s life loves her, than I know her blood pressure.”

Solutions to treating older adults with mental illness aren’t easy but the first thing to be done is to get a family doctor, someone you can trust and talk to openly and without being subjected to judgment or shame. The second thing is for the older adult, no matter how polite, to never tolerate discrimination because she is having mental health issues.

Not everyone can be Hillary Clinton, or even wants to. There are many ways to remain socially engaged without running for the office of president of the United States, but considering Hillary’s longevity and perseverance is a healthy reminder what can be accomplished post 65 years of age.

My own model of a healthy mindset is my cousin Rhoda, who is approaching 90 years old. I saw Rhoda last week at a family gathering. She looks great, very stylish and well turned out. Between social events and travel and exercise and bridge, she’s probably the busiest person in the family. One of the first social workers in Canada to specialize in geriatrics, Rhoda is planning to record a series of podcasts that document her groundbreaking work with seniors. As for me, I’m going to pay attention to every word.

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