Last update: 10-Dec-2013 1:42 am
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Growing old with poise, mental acuity
Though most people contemplate living forever or at least to a “ripe old age,” many people harbour fear of ageing as equally as they dread death. It remains a tough toss-up because the reality is either one dies young or grows old. The world, with its cosmetic standards, has inadvertently or possibly deliberately portrayed growing old as something to be shunned—you should not tell your age; and there is a colour for everyone apart from grey, since grey hairs suggest you are old or looking old. People fear becoming older adults because old age is portrayed as depressing: a lonely existence of multiple health issues “characterised by loss and disability, offering little to look forward to.” To the “shame” of ageing, add the idea of growing old with the possibility—and stigma—of developing a physical disability or mental disorder. The latter is the focus of this year’s World Mental Health Day (WMHD) to be observed globally, tomorrow, October 10, under the theme Mental Health of the Older Adult.
To my mind, old age must be considered a beautiful period of life for those who get there and should be regarded with the correct currency of being a blessing and a privilege granted to some. “The reality is that older people are as capable as younger people of enjoying life, taking on challenges, coping with difficulties, engaging in satisfying activities, supporting each other with warmth and good humour, and making a real contribution to their families and communities, using their wealth of knowledge and experience” (mentalhealth.org.uk). My aunt Agatha, my oldest maternal relative, who turned 85 one month ago, recently declared to me her intention to get a loan or grant to build a church if she is able to get title to the land she occupies. I was flabbergasted but on recovery I remembered with whom I was dealing. She is the one who, at 68, got her bachelor’s degree in gerontology and geriatrics from the University of Massachusetts and went on to do a master’s in theology in her 70s. She says she now awaits my initiation of the process so we can do our PhDs together.
A dedicated Christian since 1962, she preaches whenever she’s called upon to do so, holds church in her house every week, hosts a weekly radio programme, and every year travels to Nigeria for her global church conference. She “knows that she will meet her husband soon” so she has in her home her entire trousseau for her wedding day. She is a designer/seamstress who works to support herself along with the pension she receives. She manages her shopping, cleaning, cooking, banking and visits the sick and elderly in our family. She makes regular visits to her two younger sisters—one afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, the other only recently having had eye surgery—to lend emotional support to them and their families. At the same time, she occupies me with working out the details of her death and burial, which she thinks would not come because “Christ will return and take (her) to heaven before that time.” She is fortunate to have not experienced any mental health disorders whatsoever and to remain physically strong with mental acuity well into her old age. I speak of her often but cite her today as an example of the kind of focus and purposeful life of activity that experts say can stem the tide of mental disorders in the elderly.
There are some like aunt Agatha who never experienced any type of mental or physical illness, but on becoming an older adult encounter such issues as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, depression, anxiety, alcoholism and more. Research shows that a larger percentage of older adults (65 and above) are becoming mental health patients than any other age group—an average of 236 in every 100,000 according to the World Health Organization. While many older people experience psychological or emotional distress associated with these factors linked to old age, most older people do not develop mental health problems, and they can be helped if they do. The elderly may be reluctant to seek psychiatric treatment, which could cure or alleviate their symptoms but those who are caregivers should not ignore noticeable changes in an older person’s behaviour or moods. These changes could be symptoms of the onset of a mental health condition for which medical and psychiatric evaluations, and treatments can return an older person to a productive and happy life. (www.mentalhealthcanada.com) Good mental health and emotional well-being is as important in older age as it is at any other time of life.
Older people are more vulnerable to many of the factors that are known to cause mental illnesses, including
Being widowed or divorced
Physical disability or illness
Loneliness and isolation
In addition, older people may develop depression because of
Neurobiological changes associated with ageing
Prescribed medication for other conditions
Genetic susceptibility, which increases with age (www.cpft.nhs.uk)
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