Alexandria Column: Staying Healthy, Staying Happy

Alexandria Column: Staying Healthy, Staying Happy

Commentary–Senior Services of Alexandria

The President has declared May to be both Older Americans and Mental Health month, making it a perfect time to focus on promoting the mental health of older adults. It is estimated that 20 percent of people age 55 years or older experience some type of mental health concern. Without proper treatment it can lead to impairments in physical, mental and social functioning. Although the rate of older adults with depressive symptoms tends to increase with age, depression is not a normal part of growing older, and statistics show that in 80 percent of cases it is treatable. Risk factors include the loss of a spouse, the stress of caregiving and/or physical illnesses. However, older adults are resilient. A lifetime of experience helps put garden variety aggravations into perspective. Using common sense activities can help alleviate common stressors and help to maintain brain health:

  • Proper rest. Getting enough rest helps the brain recover and rejuvenate. Good sleep habits include having a bedtime routine; 7-8 hours is a good night’s sleep for most people. Get plenty of exercise during the day. Limit naps; use power naps or short naps, but not late in the day. Keep pre-bed time low stress and relaxing.

  • Diet and nutrition. Limit caffeine later in the day. Limit use of alcohol. Adding “smart foods” to your diet can increase the chance of maintaining a healthy brain. These include blueberries – one doctor calls them “brain berries”; deep-water fish such as wild salmon that are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids; nuts and seeds; avocados; whole grains, and limited amounts of dark chocolate.

  • Daily exercise. Exercise helps us rest better, reduces stress and improves circulation – all three conditions important for raising our moods.

  • Keep chronic medical conditions well controlled. Keep your blood sugar, your blood pressure and your cholesterol within the healthy range.

  • Reduce stress. In addition to the items mentioned above, socialize. Stay connected with friends and family. Don’t be hesitant to reach out for help when you need it.

  • Stay involved with your community. Volunteer – there are people and organizations that need you; try new things; use your imagination.

If you are a caregiver, don’t overlook the impact of caregiving has on you. Stress can negatively affect your health, well-being and ability to provide care. It’s important that caregivers take care of themselves, because both parties are depending on the caregiver. Caregivers need to find balance in their lives, although that’s easier said than done. They need to take care of their own physical, emotional and spiritual needs in order to care for others. The prescription is the same as listed above — get sufficient rest, eat a balanced and nutritious diet, exercise daily, keep chronic conditions under control, don’t become isolated — reach out to others and maintain relationships, find time for your own interests, and be sure to laugh.

There are two active caregiver support groups that meet monthly in Alexandria. The city’s Division of Aging and Adult Services group meets the first Wednesday, 4-5:30 p.m. at the Alexandria Adult Day Services Center, Lee Center, 1108 Jefferson Street in Alexandria. For more information email or call 703-746-5999. A second group sponsored by Griswold Home Care meets the second Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Immanuel Church on the Hill located at 3606 Seminary Road in Alexandria. For more information about the group call 703-739-2273. These groups are run by trained facilitators, and provide meaningful connections for those struggling to maintain a balance in life while caring for an elderly loved one.

The city also sponsors a Mental Health First Aid public education program. This eight-hour training opportunity helps demystify mental illness by using role playing and simulations. It introduces participants to risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems, builds understanding of their impact, and overviews common treatments. The program gives participants the tools to help assess a mental health crisis; select interventions and provide initial help; and connect persons to professional, peer and social supports as well as self-help resources.

For more information about these programs and other services available to older adults facing mental health challenges go to or call 703-746-5999. Senior Services of Alexandria’s monthly Senior Speaker Series also provides information about all Alexandria has to offer to help seniors and their families. To find out more go to or call 703-836-4414, ext. 110.

If you are interested in finding out more about Older Americans Month go to