Even Positive Transitions can be Stressful: Aging and Mental Health

Niagara’s population is aging, consistently ranking among the top four places in the country for its percentage of older residents (20%), along with Peterborough, ON, Kelowna and Victoria B.C. Although Niagara’s aging residents are increasingly living long, high quality, active and independent lives, the stressful experiences that often accompany aging can be challenging.

Despite being increasingly well informed about physical health concerns and dementia among older adults, we tend to be less aware of issues regarding their mental health, substance use, and risk of suicide. It is estimated that one of every five people over 65 lives with a mental health disorder.
Researchers have long known that mental health challenges are more common among those experiencing high levels of stress and aging is accompanied by many stressful life events. Moreover, at any age, biological factors can contribute to the development of mental health challenges and addictive behaviours. Consequently, for some, aging may come with the development of new mental health challenges, and for those with a history of recovery, aging may come with a setback.

Although we may look forward to some of the transitions that come with aging, transitions are stressful. Retirement for example can mean tremendous freedom to do the things we never had time for, but it may come with a loss of routine, reduced contact with our former colleagues, reduced income, or a feeling that we have no purpose. Similarly, downsizing to a condominium may free us to travel more but selling the family home may also mean the loss of our neighbourhood, giving up a favourite hobby like gardening or woodworking, and again, the loss of routine.

Older adults are also more likely to be stressed by caring for an ill or increasingly dependent spouse or family member and they are likely to experience bereavement and widowhood more frequently. Factors such as reduced contact with former colleagues and neighbours, physical distance from family members and friends and the reduced ability of an ill spouse to provide social support can combine to leave older adults feeling lonely and socially isolated at a time when there are fewer opportunities to establish new relationships. At the same time, changes in wellness may impair mobility, sight or hearing; contributing to a loss of independence and may force us to give up favourite pastimes.

Symptoms of mental health and substance use issues in older adults may include:

  • extreme and prolonged sadness (2+ weeks)
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • volatile moods or irritability
  • withdrawal from social activities
  • changes in appetite or weight
  • unexplained fatigue
  • loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable
  • changes in personal hygiene or dress
  • their formerly tidy home may be poorly kept

If you would like information and resources about seniors’ mental health or wish to connect with a local agency for counselling or support, call Niagara’s Access Line 24/7 at 1-866-550-5205. If you need someone to talk to and are not in a life-threatening situation, Niagara’s Crisis and Outreach Support Team (COAST) can be reached 24/7 by calling the Access Line and pressing 1.

There are also excellent self-care strategies that you can begin doing today. Eating healthy, exercising regularly, and maintaining a regular sleep schedule are as important to mental health as they are to physical health. Opportunities to volunteer and mentor can provide a renewed sense of purpose and help us feel less isolated. Joining a book club, walking group, or seniors club can provide opportunities to make new friends, have fun, and develop new pastimes.

If you are interested in learning more about such opportunities and clubs in Niagara, INCommunities (formerly Information Niagara) is the “go to” agency. INCommunities can also provide information and referrals to all types of local services for all ages. They can be reached 24/7 by dialling 211 or 1-800-263-3695.

Helpful Websites:

Source: Joy Stewart-Riffle
Quality Coordinator, Canadian Mental Health Association Niagara