What can you do to enhance wellbeing in the elderly?

We can work towards not just associating ageing with deteriorating health and shrinking social circles.

Dr Garima Srivastava

Ageing involves physical, cognitive, social and familial losses and brings with it an increased incidence of disability and the need for assistance with activities of daily living. While there is a lot of emphasis on the physical well-being of older people, the same emphasis or importance has not been placed on their mental health and wellbeing. Research shows that having negative perceptions of ageing have also been associated with poorer functioning and increased mortality (Levy et al. 2002). Promoting successful ageing is an important part of maintaining physical and mental wellbeing in the elderly.

Some issues that the elderly face include grief, bereavement, isolation (social & geographic), poor health status, inadequate social support networks (weak, dysfunctional), inadequate or conflicted social environment in their current living situation.

Some of the ways in which wellbeing can be enhanced among the elderly include:

  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle: Including physical activity, especially in later life is central to improving physical and mental health, because regular exercise positively effects general health, mobility and independence, and is associated with a reduced risk of depression and anxiety. Exercise also enhances mood and improves self-esteem.  Any form of physical activity is good to begin with, e.g., walking, gardening, dancing, walking the dog, or participating in organized or competitive sport. At an older age, incorporating good nutrition can help not only curb chronic diseases but also helps in aiding in recovery from illnesses.

  • Staying meaningfully active by working, either in a paid or voluntary capacity, is good for the health of the elderly as it helps them feel a sense of goodwill that comes from contributing to society. This is also seen to have an impact on older people’s economic circumstances and on their ability to participate in the society (Marmot et al. 2003).

  • Strengthening social networks helps connect older people across different age groups and enable more care within and for the community. E.g., a lot of residential societies have book clubs that organise weekly story-reading sessions for the elderly by younger volunteers.

  • Maintaining social interaction: Since social isolation and loneliness negatively affect both physical and mental health, particularly among older adults, it becomes all the more important to encourage social support to foster wellbeing through building relationships. Some steps towards this could include connecting regularly with friends and family, making an effort to make new friends and finding a support group in times of change (especially if you are undergoing health or bereavement-related issues, connecting with others who could be experiencing something similar to what you are experiencing may help ease the pain).

Even though old age is often associated with life changes that may be difficult to cope with and may generate feelings of isolation, loneliness and despair, proactive handholding by others in the community can help the elderly manage negative feelings or low moods more easily.

References: Levy, B. R., Slade, M. D., Kunkel, S. R., & Karsi, S. V. (2002). Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 261- 270.