Wrinkles and Floppy Bits: How to Thrive in Old Age

Body falling apart. Pain from head to toe. Wrinkles and floppy bits. Hair not growing where it’s meant to. Memory fading. Energy depleting. Losing life partners, siblings and friends. Loneliness. Financial worries….

It is true that aging can be depressing and stressful at times. However, contrary to what many people think, it is not true that chronic and debilitating anxiety and depression are an inevitable part of old age. While aspects of aging can be distressing, it’s never too late to improve your psychological health and quality of life so that you can get the most out of this precious final [or not so final] chapter of your life.

 

How to Enjoy Your Old Age

Here are a few simple things you can do to help you find your spark again. [Actually, these strategies work for almost any age group.]

Enjoy the moment. People get depressed and anxious when they ruminate about the past or worry about the future. Try to turn off the trash TV in your head; or at least turn the volume down and position it in a far corner of your mind, so it can waffle on in the background without dominating your life. Then notice or think about things that give you pleasure, even if just in a small way. It might be the taste of your daily tea or coffee; the sound of bird song; the feel of your favourite slippers; or the smell of flowers. nbmbnb

Meditate. It’s taken a while, but mainstream western psychology and medicine have finally acknowledged the benefits of aware relaxation that our eastern cousins have been professing for millennium; that regular mediation tends to positively affect mind and body.  Every day find a quiet place where you can sit comfortably, take your shoes off if it’s warm enough, shut your eyes, relax your body, and watch the ebb and flow of your breath, without controlling it. It’s that simple. Of course, most of us find it quite difficult to notice our breath without our mind wandering, but whenever that happens, as soon as you become aware of it, simply bring your attention gently back to relaxing with your breath. It can help your focus to repeat a relaxing or nonsense word or phrase, or count your out-breath to ten, then repeat. Some people find that visualising an image or colour helps too. Guided meditations on CDs or YouTube can be really useful, especially when you are starting out.

Ground yourself. Every day take your shoes off and stand or sit on the ground. Research indicates that grounding our bodies with the earth allows us to balance the energy in our negative ion starved bodies. This is shown to positively affect our physical and mental health. Grass, sand, dirt, concrete, and even tiles on a concrete floor are all good conductors, so they ground well. Wood and ashphalt don’t conduct as well, so are not as effective. Alternatively you could go for a swim, or have a bath or shower. Getting your hands dirty in the garden is another way.

Take action. If you are physically well enough, get out of the house and do something. Lack of action can increase depression and lead to physical unfitness.  If you feel too flat and tired to do anything, that is a good sign that you need to do something. As long as it’s not going to harm you physically, light exercise can help you feel great… once you have motivated yourself to start. Make sure you check with your doctor, then, once you get the all clear, join a light exercise class or walking group. Sunshine is also a good mood lifter and is known to be important for physical health.

Move out of your comfort zone.  Avoiding doing things that are scary tends to make them even more scary.  This can lead to more avoidance and an increasingly restricted life. Break free from the traps that anxiety and fear of embarrassment might have created. Do something a little bit wild and adventurous, and tick a few items off your bucket list. How about going somewhere new, lunching with an old friend, joining a club, learning an instrument, doing a course, or going on a cruise?

Get help. If you are depressed or anxious or both, a good quality therapist can really help. Talk to your doctor about a referral to a free or affordable professional.  Community organisations and telephone counselling services can be helpful too.

Exercise your brain. Studies have shown that older people who exercise their brains can think and remember better than their brain lazy counterparts. Damaged brain cells can’t regrow, but they can grow extra connections with use. New connections can enable us to create new thinking pathways. A study of elderly people who were taught computer skills showed that their brains actually increased in size as new connections grew and their brain cells pumped up. So make sure you do some crosswords, sukudo, or puzzles regularly. Start a scrabble or bridge club. Do a maths, writing, computer, photography or other course for fun. Read books. Update your computer skills and surf the net for knowledge. Use it or lose it.

Get creative. The other thing about brains is that it is important to exercise the non-logical side as well as the logical side. This is usually the right half of the brain in right handed people, and it is connected to the left hand side of the body.  This side of the brain is where most of our creative thinking resides. Practicing creative activities, such as drawing, painting, pottery,  woodcarving, or craft stimulate this side of the brain, again creating new pathways. Try not to be critical, just let go and enjoy the experience. If you really really want to give your left brain a workout, try drawing with your non-dominant hand. Creative pursuits are also known to improve mood and reduce anxiety. Basically, creativity is good for brains.

Do some good deeds.  Helping other people can shift us out of our negative headspace and help us to feel that life still has purpose. You could do random acts of kindness for strangers, help a neighbour or loved one, or volunteer for a charity organisation. Becoming a regular volunteer can provide structure to your week, which is an important component for psychological health in retirement.

Laugh and smile. Readers Digest had it right all those years ago: laughter really is the best medicine. Think about funny stories from your past and write them down in a ‘Fun Book’. You could also add amusing experiences from recent times, even a funny thing that happened at the hospital.  Share funny stories with friends and family and ask them to share some of theirs. Avoid the news and instead watch one of the many comedy shows on TV. Let go the negative judgement and allow yourself to have a good giggle.

Appreciate your life. Think about how lucky you are to exist in this fantastic experience we call life at this exciting time in history, and how lucky you are to have had the opportunity to enjoy so many decades full of so many experiences. What an amazing perspective you have. What an amazing being you are.

 

 

 

Disappearing with Dementia

My mother has dementia: Alzheimer’s we’re told. She’s 79, fit as a fiddle physically, and still coordinates her wardrobe with some of her old style most of the time, but it’s hard for her to maintain a train of thought for long.

Mum’s working memory has gradually diminished to the point where it lasts about twenty seconds. Occasionally she can hold a thought to the end of a sentence, and she can sometimes even manage to participate sensibly in a brief conversation, but before long her thoughts inevitably get lost and scrambled, and she makes no sense.

I remember having a conversation with her a couple of years ago, when her working memory was about two minutes long. She acknowledged the difficulty of organising her ideas with a deteriorating memory. She agreed that thought needs some memory to hold and manipulate its parts. True thinking cannot be done successfully without a working memory, so dementia takes away the ability to think.

Difficult Conversations

Some of Mum’s intelligence is still in there, within the chaos. She still thinks in complex concepts, but struggles to find the words to express them.  She was always a keen conversationalist, and she certainly hasn’t let her dementia stop her talking, but it is sometimes a struggle to understand what she means.

Because her memory is so damaged, Mum repeats herself in endless loops. She might ask about the weather, or where I live, or our plans for Christmas ten times in as many minutes.  If she was a quieter person, we might not be so aware of the extent of her intellectual disorder.

A Former Life

I have been living in the UK, and recently returned to Australia to be near my mother; to spend time with her before she disappears completely. She is not the mother she once was, but in some ways she still is. I can still catch glimpses of that former person; that incredibly stylish and smart, intuitive, and emotionally intelligent woman who, together with my father, created a family and a successful business, built houses, and travelled the world.

Mum came from a large family, and was historically the person her brothers and sisters turned to when someone needed to be listened to, or hospitalised, or put in care, or buried. She was a middle child, not the eldest, but we were the first sub-family to emigrate from Scotland to Australia, so Mum helped to organise and house each of her siblings and their families as they arrived. I think this, along with her sound organisation skills, big heart, and generosity with her time and energy, was the reason she maintained the big sister role in her family until her mental deterioration.

Put a Gun to My Head

Some of my mother’s siblings developed dementia long before her, and their father also died of the disease. Mum used to say, “Put a gun to the back of my head and shoot me if that ever happens to me.”

But nature is both cruel and kind. As her brain cells died, her mind refused to accept that she had any problem beyond the normal declining memory of people her age. Even now, when she is locked away in a secure unit within a nursing home, unable to leave without a chaperone, she has no idea that she has dementia.

Happily Confused

The good news is that she is very happy and appreciative of everything and everyone. She enjoys living in the nursing home, surrounded by confused people who share the same condition.  It can be touching and amusing to see Mum trying to be her usual helpful self with another resident who insists that the clothes he found in his room are not his. Confusion begets confusion.

Mum sees these people as her friends, and enjoys talking with them and her wonderful carers all day, but she could not identify a single name if asked.

I try to learn their names on my visits. I often wonder, as I watch them being fed and dressed and steered in the right direction, who were these confused shells of people before they started to disappear with dementia? Were any of the other residents as vibrant, intelligent, competent and caring as my mother? What were their lives like? What were their achievements? Who and what exists because of them?

When to Grieve?

It must be painful for their families, as it is painful for me and my family, for we cannot grieve in a normal way. Our loved ones are not yet gone, but they are definitely going.

It will be years before we bury my wonderful mother, but the mother I had and knew is fading quickly before my eyes, being replaced with a sweet, loving, and more and more confused little old lady.

Should I cry? Should I sigh and accept the inevitable downward slide with a stiff upper lip? Or should I be happy and grateful that I get to spend time with this gorgeous, happy, loving, gentle person as she continues to change? And should I be happy for her that she continues to live and enjoy life?

Ask me in a few years. Ask me when her language totally goes; when she can no longer feed herself; when she needs to wear a nappy. Ask me when these factors cloud the memory of the amazing women that she was.

Mum still recognises and remembers me, most of the time, but she cannot do that forever. Perhaps that will be the most difficult transition for me. When she disappears to the point of no longer realising that I’m Lorri, her little girl.

Lorri Craig