“Mental health is not the sexiest topic.” So suggested Dennis Romero, speaking before a room filled with upwards of 100 senior citizens at Queens Borough Hall on Wednesday morning.
Romero, Region II administrator of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, was one of two speakers who addressed members of the Queens Interagency Council on Aging, which sponsored the event.
Welcoming the crowd, Maria Cuadrado, QICA president, said mental health among the aging is not something to hide. “We so much avoid looking at our own deterioration as we age. But we have to face reality and face it aggressively.”
Romero noted people have been taught that mental health is a character flaw, “a sense of weakness. The reality is mental health is a disease. It affects the whole body,” he said.
He recommended various activities to keep mentally healthy, many of them centering around an increase in the body’s serotonin, a chemical popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being.
“Hugging, touching, holding someone is important,” Romero said, encouraging seniors to “engage others. You still have a lot to offer.”
Exercise is another factor that comes into play, even a walk, brisk or slow, around the block.
And, the official added, “You’d be surprised. When you have intimacy, serotonin bathes the brain,” leading to greater vitality.
“Isolation is very challenging,” he said. Being alone often leads to depression, which may appear as simply “feeling a gray cloud over you” or, in the extreme, as “clinical depression,” which can involve thoughts of suicide.
“You cannot forget the experience that you bring,” Romero told the audience. “That gives you a sense of purpose. If we could harness your experience, your wisdom, your view of the world, we would be a better, healthier, stronger society.”
“The elderly population is growing. It will have a profound impact on our society” in the future, he predicted.
Jane Bardavid, director of CAPE (Community Advisory Program for the Elderly), reminded the audience that “we are all members of families. Aging is a family affair.”
She suggested that “with aging come new challenges. We’re asked to problem solve in a different way from when we were younger.”
One of the most difficult challenges for the elderly, she said, is the need, at times, to give up driving. “It is a very difficult decision to make. Driving exemplifies independence. We want to hold on to our independence.”
Bardavid made it clear that as one ages, the ability to rely on others becomes crucial: “Anyone who refuses assistance is not making good decisions.”
She also suggested that among the most important supports are social contacts. “The telephone is a two-way instrument,” urging everyone to reach out to each other.
Studies have shown, Bardavid said, that “social media has become such an important component for people who are homebound. Social media has such potential for connecting people.”
In order to maintain mental health, Bardavid indicated that “as we age, we need support.” That includes “good access to healthcare.”
Bardavid touched on dementia, which she described as occurring when the brain starts to deteriorate and a person begins to lose cognitive functioning. Sighs of relief were audible when Bardavid said, “Word retrieval problems are not the same as memory problems.”
While different forms of the illness can’t be cured, Bardavid said one “can adapt to the ravages of dementia.”