Caring for our emotional wellness as we age

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Emotional wellness is an important aspect of living a healthy life as we age. Unfortunately, many people pay much more attention to their physical health while focusing less on their emotional wellness.

For example, many who are experiencing physical discomfort of any kind will consult a medical professional rather expeditiously to find out what is going on in their body. But most do not treat their emotional health with the same urgency. We may choose to ignore it, try to work through it on our own or hope it will simply go away. The reality is that most of us in our lifetime, especially as older adults, can benefit from emotional “tune-ups.”

The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well being, and not merely the absence of disease.” As we get older, we are more likely to experience life events that may challenge our emotional wellness. The loss of parents, siblings, partners or friends may send us into a state of emotional imbalance. Being a caretaker for a loved one who is ill can be a very difficult situation and can take a toll on our emotional well being. 

Additionally, medical reasons can contribute to a state of depression. Research suggests that mental-health conditions have a genetic component to them, so that a person could be at a genetic predisposition if he or she has a family member living with a mental illness, especially if it is a first-degree (parent, sibling) or second-degree (grandparent, aunt, uncle, etc.) family member.  Having this awareness can help you realize what may be going on so you can choose to access the support you need.

Social isolation is something that may also contribute to, or be a symptom of, depression. As noted previously, as we get older, losses in our lives may accumulate and a person may find him or herself with a lack of or an unsatisfactory social network. Some may choose not to reach out to make new friends because they fear losing more people or may feel that trying to meet new people is too difficult at this stage in their lives. Some may not know of many social spaces to meet other LGBT older adults.

The ageism that often pervades LGBT communities may compound these challenges of making social connections as a person ages into his or her 60s and beyond. If one is living with mobility limitations or has special medical needs, the chances of isolation may increase.

In light of the issues that contribute to depression and social isolation, it is important to recognize when this is your lived experience, so you can get the help and support you need. Talking to a therapist can do wonders to help improve mental health and to gain a sense of emotional well-balance.

It’s also important to note that therapy is not just for someone who is feeling depressed or sad, but can also provide an “emotional tune-up” for anyone as they age. Being able to talk with an objective professional to bounce thoughts and feelings off of can help someone to process their emotions and make positive life changes.

Various models of mental-health services have made these resources increasingly available. If you have access to technology, you can even access a therapist or support group online if that is more convenient for you. You can also connect to online social communities to help decrease your isolation, though having face-to-face social connections throughout your week will still be beneficial.

Having a satisfactory social life is a critical component to achieving and maintaining emotional wellness. Volunteering, attending community events, taking classes and joining social groups can all help to build and maintain these social connections.

From 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Oct. 3, the LGBT Elder Initiative is hosting a discussion about mental health and social isolation among older adults. Information and resources will be provided so you will walk away with concrete information on available services and tips for achieving and maintaining emotional wellness. The forum also provides another opportunity for socialization and to meet new people.

We hope you will join us!

Lee F. Carson is a board member of the LGBT Elder Initiative and a social worker, college professor, therapist, trainer, LGBT community activist and co-founder and former president of the Black Gay Men’s Leadership Council. To comment on this column, suggest topics for future columns or for more information, visit www.lgbtei.org or call the LGBTEI at 215-550-1460 and watch for “Gettin’ On” each month in PGN.