Positive relationships are protective of mental health. Research shows that beneficial relationships aren’t only with people. Pets, plants, and prayer represent other sources of relationships that bring joy, solace, and support.
Loving relationships contribute greatly to our health and happiness. If someone has enjoyed a longstanding and meaningful relationship, and the relationship changes dramatically due to significant illness, disability or other circumstance, adjustments must be made. Unanticipated adjustments might begin a cascade of other changes and challenges. Even the strongest of relationships may not survive a crisis. This is true of romantic relationships as well as deep friendships and even family relations.
It can be particularly traumatic when an individual experiences consecutive losses of relationships – especially if that individual has doubt that new relationships will be formed. On the other hand, many relationships survive grave challenges only to emerge stronger. People can learn more about each other and the deep need for the relationship’s survival during periods of distress. Couples may grow closer and friendships may strengthen. New relationships can blossom at any age despite physical and cognitive changes.
In these days of living longer, it is increasingly common for older adults to seek new intimate relationships and mates. This can be a very positive and life affirming experience. The need for touch and intimacy does not disappear with age. In fact, positive intimate engagement contributes to a healthy aging process on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels. Older adults may feel more freedom in their relationships, open to new experiences with intimate partners and enjoy different types of pleasure.
Special mention should be made of older lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals, many of whom may have lived long lives without enjoying the same rights and comforts that heterosexual individuals and couples enjoy. Significant disparities exist for LGBT seniors in the areas of social acceptance, financial security, health care and quality of life. Yet there is growing support and hope that late life can be a time for equality in the celebration of love and freedom for individuals in the LGBT community.
Sometimes our own internal thoughts can be our worst enemy. Positive self-talk is the practice of treating ourselves as we would a loved one: with respect, compassion and encouragement. Telling yourself you are valuable and deserving is a good place to start. When the negative voices of doubt or criticism creep into your thinking, you can identify them as self-defeating.
Identifying negative thoughts is a key first-step. The next challenge is to replace the negative thoughts with positive ones. This might take practice. It may even feel silly, but it works. Use gentle, kind and positive statements to soothe yourself and to stimulate positive feelings and behaviors. An example would be to catch yourself thinking, “I’m such an idiot, I lose everything!” and instead say to yourself, “Just relax and retrace your steps. You’ll find your keys. It’s going to be okay.” Offset negative thoughts by identifying your strengths, you’re achievements and the benefits you’ve brought to others. Practice talking to yourself in the same way you would talk to your best friend.
Know what soothes and comforts your soul and do it regularly. Many people turn to religion in later life or in times of great challenge. There are teachings, deeds, rituals, terms and celebrations that are unique to the different religions of the world which worship different deities or a singular loving and creative force known by different names such as God, Allah, and Yahweh.
Some people may not identify with a religion but have faith in a large and loving life force. In America, people are free to choose any belief system and religious or spiritual practice. Some people find comfort in practicing their faith in a religious community and others choose to practice their faith independently. Prayer, meditation, and other spiritual rituals help to uplift many people through times of great stress and they have multiple proven health benefits.
Isolation happens too easily and frequently in late life, often due to circumstances that are beyond an individual’s control. The loss of loved ones, reduced mobility, sensory loss, illness, institutionalization, lack of transportation, low income and rural residence are just some of the contributors to the problem of social isolation.
When people become disconnected from their friends, activities of interest and the overall community, they are at a much higher risk for mental and physical health problems. The decreased social contact and physical activity that results from isolation may result in a vicious cycle where individuals continue to detach from people and activities, and continue to experience a decline in health. Challenges to social engagement and activities can seem overwhelming. However, people must commit to creative and flexible problem solving with the knowledge that staying connected is a primary goal in promoting mental and physical health.
The following are tips to help keep older adults connected:
- Make sure sensory aids are used (hearing aids and glasses)
- Make accommodations for transportation
- Make use of the computer — there is technology to adapt computers to all kinds of disabilities and the internet offers opportunities for learning, personal development, support groups, and interaction with others
- Check into volunteer or mentorship opportunities
- Accompany an older individual as they make new connections — having a friend for support can cut down on fears and awkwardness in new situations
- Figure out ways to bring the “outer world” into the home of a person who becomes increasingly homebound
- Develop new in-home activities such as gardening, crafts, social gatherings
- Check with local Area Agencies on Aging for classes, support groups, volunteer opportunities and countless other ideas for community and social engagement in home or out