“What about this medication? Should I try this one out?” “There has to be something out there that can make all this easier.” “Why can’t things just be simple these days.” These are just a few of the many lines I hear when working with older adults who are dealing with the multiple stressors and daily challenges that aging brings. Considering the overwhelming transitions, declines in functioning, and comorbid medical conditions; the weight of such stress understandably can lead to the development of symptoms of depression and anxiety. The healthcare system has grown into this complicated matrix that is difficult to navigate for anybody, but can be especially difficult for older adults who rely on multiple providers in managing chronic medical conditions and mental health challenges. For older adults aging in place or continuing to live independently, managing their own healthcare adds another stressor to their already stress filled lives.
In working with some older adult clients, I find myself at times bombarded with questions about medications and the numerous treatment remedies seen in the media. While some of the many mass marketed remedies may have some success with some people, they appear to cause much more stress in some of my clients life because my older adult clients express that they cannot keep up with “all these treatments they have out there.”
With each of my clients, early on in our therapeutic relationship, I introduce the three most effective strategies for maintaining one’s health, happiness, and well-being: physical activity, emotional connectivity, and social engagement. When I bring up these three strategies, I am often met with a confused expression, followed by a question such as, “Okay, that’s all good and fine, but what about X medication or Y treatment?” My introduction of physical activity, emotional connectivity, and social engagement are not to disregard the importance of proper medicine management and other forms of therapy. However, truly implementing these three strategies into daily life can have a huge impact on an older adults’ quality of life, along with providing the older adult with a sense of meaning and control amidst the complexities of later life. Unfortunately, weaving the complex healthcare system and managing the overwhelming challenges of later life often makes the implementation of these three strategies far more difficult than they should be in theory. I want to explore these three strategies in helping older adults to find ways to overcome the barriers that may inhibit the incorporation of physical activity, emotional connectivity, and social engagement in their lives.
A common response to the idea of engaging in physical activity often cites a physical or medical condition that requires the older adult to perform no strenuous activities. I always recommend my clients discuss starting certain physical activities with their primary care physician before taking part in such activities. However, I also work to redefine physical activity with that client. If the client is physically capable of safely walking, simply implementing a 10 minute walk to the corner or around the house even. For older adults with gait problems or history of falls, providing different arm movements and sitting down exercises are doable activities that provide the older adult not only the benefits of those movements, but the psychological benefit of feeling as though they are doing something for their health. Another common barrier to implementing physical activity is lack of motivation. Older adults living with depressive symptoms may have little desire to do any activities and will not be motivated to try such exercises. Lack of motivation is a topic in itself, but in working to help the client find ways to implement some physical activity into their daily lives, the older adult will be taking a proactive stance at managing their health.
Emotional connectivity is the second strategy I explore with my older adult clients. The idea of emotional connectivity seems like it should be inherent in the relationships the older adult already has with their spouse, children, or friends. However when I breakdown the layers of emotional connectivity as a moment focused process of truly expressing one’s feelings for another person and genuinely attempting to connect with another human being, many of my older adult clients realize they lack emotional connectivity even with their closest loved ones. Emotional connectivity can be achieved through reminiscing important memories, sharing in favorite traditions, or simply meaningfully expressing love for someone else. A theme that emerges is the realization that in focusing so heavily on the management of the older adults’ conditions or functional changes, the actual person within gets pushed to the back burner. I work to emphasize practicing a mindful approach to having moments of true emotional connection with those in our lives. Emotional connectivity brings to the forefront a sense of meaning and deep joy that can be overshadowed by the stressors and challenges of an aging life.
Finally, social engagement, while seemingly the same thing as emotional connectivity, is actually its own separate yet important strategy for maintaining a meaningful and healthy life. Social engagement is the idea of just having fun. I have experienced some older adult clients who express to me that they have never been a “social person,” they enjoy their time to themselves with their loved ones. I often emphasize the concept of fun in responding to such statements. Social engagement does not mean you must go be in large crowds of people and mingle with everyone around. While some may enjoy such larger groups, it is possible to take part in social engagement even with one person. The point is that the older adult is doing something they deem “fun” with someone they enjoy being around. This demonstrates the overlapping nature of these three strategies since doing something “fun” with someone you love can include moments of emotional connectivity. The fun activity may even be something physical. Overall, the simple point is to incorporate these three strategies into what best fits the client’s personality and worldview.
Every individual of any age can benefit from implementing physical activity, emotional connectivity, and social engagement into their lives. However, with the numerous challenges older adults face, these three strategies can help older adult clients find a harmony in their lives. This harmony of mind, body, spirit can truly be overshadowed by medical management and more intensive healthcare practices, but reinforcing the focus on these three simple, yet difficult, strategies can make an unbelievable impact in the life of the client. As always, I love to hear from fellow counselors! Feel free to email me at email@example.com
________________________________________________________________________ Lee Kehoe is a counselor working with the older adult population. It is her passion to serve the older adult population through counseling, research, and advocacy efforts, with the hope of raising awareness to the growing needs of older adults and their families. www.alz.org