Between 1900 and 2000, the average U.S. life expectancy increased by nearly 30 years. That statistic addresses quantity, but what about the quality of those extra years? When a senior’s children have grown and moved away, and the senior has retired, what then?
How we as family members and friends perceive and value our senior loved ones, and how they perceive and value themselves, has a major impact on their physical and emotional health.
Studies have shown that seniors with a sense of purpose are less susceptible to cognitive impairment, heart attacks, and strokes, and they are more likely to live longer. Why? Because they are more physically active, take better care of themselves, and are less susceptible to stress. Learning new things improves brain health. Physical activity slows and sometimes reverses physical incapacity.
In short, many of the problems associated with aging increase due to the lack of meaning in people’s lives, and the result can be an unnecessary surrender to aging. So what can we do to help improve quality of life for seniors and our older loved ones?
1. Create a Sense of Purpose
No matter a person’s age, we need a sense of purpose, of belonging, and of being valued. Senior adults are often dismissed as no longer having as much to offer as they did when they were younger, and unfortunately, this attitude becomes adopted by the seniors themselves. Seniors have a lot to give in terms of knowledge, love, and creativity, but they have to feel they are respected and involved to share with others.
2. Recognize and Treat Signs of Depression
Seniors are particularly susceptible to depression. It can be caused by the loss of their child-caring role, loss of employment through retirement, a move from home to a retirement community, chronic illness or pain, death of a spouse or close friends, loss of independence, medications, disease, or cognitive impairment.
Depression is a serious, debilitating disorder that is not a natural part of aging. Family and friends should encourage a senior loved one to seek out treatment if they seem depressed. There are many types of depression, but some common symptoms include:
- Persistent sadness
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Loss of interest
- Difficulty sleeping and concentrating
- Aches and pains without a physical cause
At a vulnerable stage in their life, depression may threaten their physical and emotional health. However, they and those that love them can create a new beginning to make life fulfilling again.
3. Find Usefulness in Daily Tasks
If you want to help your senior adult find purpose, put them to work! They have probably spent their entire life defining themselves by what they accomplish and contribute. It doesn’t have to be anything more than helping cook a meal, babysitting a grandchild, taking care of a pet, tending a garden, folding laundry, or helping with some shopping. If they are able to do it, don’t always do it for them.
4. Make Connections to Improve Quality of Life for Seniors
Loneliness (a major cause of depression) is often associated with aging, and you do not have to be over age 65 to feel its effects. A recent study found that 1 in 3 U.S. adults age 45 and older are lonely.
Of course, regularly connecting with family and friends is somewhat obvious, but the senior should also seek out opportunities to engage with people around them. One study showed that just greeting a neighbor cut the percentage of people feeling lonely by half.
Loneliness can spiral in on itself as seniors continue to further isolate themselves in response. Encourage them to make contact with the world outside their home. Suggest they join a group with like interests.
5. Stay in Physical Motion
The connection between emotional and physical health is well established. Even mild exercise not only builds and maintains physical abilities to go about the daily activities of living but also creates pride, confidence and an increased sense of independence, all of which are vital to feeling good about life.
6. Stay in Mental Motion
Family and friends can play a role in helping the senior stay mentally sharp for as long as possible.
Seniors can create goals like learning a new hobby, or taking a trip to some place new. They should think about the interests and activities that provide them with a sense of purpose and explore them further.
Family and friends can help by calling upon the knowledge and experience their senior gathered over a lifetime. Ask their opinion. Encourage them to talk about what they have been through. A person doesn’t go through 60-plus years without learning a lot of valuable information and gaining unique perspectives.
7. Look for Opportunities for Senior Service
There are a number of opportunities for seniors to contribute to others. Some can be found on the National & Community Service website, including the following:
Foster Grandparents volunteer as role models, mentors, and friends to children with exceptional needs.
Senior Companions provides assistance and companionship to adults challenged by daily living tasks.
RSVP is a volunteer network encompassing a variety of activities, such as organizing neighborhood watch programs, tutoring and mentoring, renovating homes, and teaching English to immigrants.
Find more senior Health & Wellness tips on Bethesda’s blog.