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19th September 2022

Six steps to improving your mental health in later life

Monica Cations dementia

By Dr Monica Cations
Registered Psychologist and Senior Research Fellow in late life mental health
Flinders University and THRF Early Career Fellow

Most of us look forward to our retirement with eager anticipation, ready to slow down the pace of life and finally have the time for everything we’ve been putting off.

But retirement is a major life transition that leaves some feeling lost, down, and isolated. Later life brings with it important challenges that can make it difficult to feel mentally well, and many older people experience mental health challenges including depression and anxiety.

We don’t talk about mental health in late life enough. Here are six simple things you can do to maximise your mental health in late life.

1. Identify your values

One misconception about work is that all it gives us is money. Most people get much more from work, including a sense of purpose, achievement, and contribution. Work can foster a sense of fun, autonomy, challenge, and pride, as well as social connection and community. These functions are crucial to mental wellbeing throughout our lives and after you retire it is important to find new avenues to access them.

Spend some time thinking about your values. What is really important to you? What did you like most about work and how might you keep that in your life? This might be through hobbies, volunteering, friends or family, travel, home improvement, activism, or anything else. You might like to look back over your life so far and consider what you’re most proud of – this can help to pinpoint your values. Once you’ve identified your values you can think about how to invest your time to live by them.

2. Seek out social connection and engagement

One of the biggest contributors to mental health problems after retirement is social isolation. Many people underestimate the social connection that work provides and are surprised by how much they miss it after they retire.

Keeping socially connected is key to promoting mental wellbeing, especially if you live alone. It might help to map out the connections in your life to find what’s missing. For example, maybe you have plenty of people who will help you move furniture, but not enough who will listen when you talk about your feelings.

The next step takes some bravery: putting yourself out there. It might be a very long time since you last had to try to make a new friend or partner. Joining groups, attending activities, making conversation, and connecting online can help with this step.

3. Keep physically active

I know, this is the boring recommendation for everything. I hate to say it but it’s true: exercise really is the best medicine. Regular exercise, be it in a gym, out for a walk, or in the garden, has a powerful affect on our mood and stress. And of course, exercise has positive effects on our health and sleep which are important for mental health. Consider how to make exercise an enjoyable thing to do, by exercising with friends or pairing it with something enjoyable like your favourite podcast.

4. Find your ‘flow’

Just as important as keeping your body active is keeping your mind engaged and challenged. There is good evidence to suggest that mental stimulation is associated with improved wellbeing and reduced risk of illnesses including dementia.

When deciding how to spend your time, look for the combination of challenge and enjoyment. Activities that are both challenging and enjoyable can create a sense of ‘flow’, where you are fully engaged but also fully satisfied by what you’re doing. You’ll know it when you feel it!

The perfectly mindful activity is one that is hard enough that it takes your attention, but not so hard that you become frustrated and give up. For me, it’s creative writing. What gets you into the flow?

5. Be an informed and assertive health and aged care user

Later life inevitably brings with it changes to health and thinking about death. Navigating health and aged care services can be daunting and overwhelming. Being prepared with advanced care planning can help you to retain a sense of control and clarity about the future. If you need them, accessing aged and health care services early is a good idea. These supports can reduce your risk of injuries and illness that can otherwise limit your independence and negatively affect your mental health.

6. Identify when you’re struggling and ask for help

Research tells us that older people are less likely than younger people to recognise the early signs of mental health problems, and are less likely to reach out for help when they need it. There are many contributors to this, including that mental health has been a relatively taboo subject in our community until recently.

It is important to be a close observer of your own signs of distress, and know that these can be different for everyone. While some people experience persistent low mood and/or worry, others simply notice that they are more irritable, find it more difficult to be motivated to do things, have trouble sleeping, lose their interest in sex and intimacy, have memory problems, or something else entirely. How you will be able to tell if you are struggling?  And who might be able to tell you if they notice your signs?

The next step is seeking help. Your GP can assess your symptoms and help you get access to treatments, including medications and talking therapy. There are also online programs that can help, including from Macquarie University.

Treatments for depression, anxiety and other mental health problems have strong evidence supporting their effectiveness for older people. Seeking help when you need it is an important step for keeping mentally well and living your best life after retirement.