If the older adult in your life suffers from a mood disorder, such as anxiety or depression, maybe you should consider their environment. At times, short or long-term counseling may be appropriate. Other times, medication can help make significant improvement in day-to-day functioning. You can also combine the two approaches, which is very common, and may be more beneficial than using just one. However, there is a simple contributor to senior mental health that many people overlook: the constant presence of a comfortable and meaningful space of their own. In other words, home.
What home means to us all
The concept of home is heavy with meaning no matter who you are. Many people define themselves by the location of their home, or the type of house they live in. In part, this is why people decorate their houses, maintain their lawns and shrubbery, and perform similar rituals. Our homes are, in part, our public faces; the way we present ourselves to the world.
It’s also human nature to want to belong somewhere; to be surrounded by things that make us happy. As we grow up, this may be our immediate family, later changing to the family we create and the friends we make and invite into our homes. And rest assured that home means no less during our sunset years than it does in the preceding ones.
What home means to older adults
To older adults, the concept of home may mean even more than it does to younger populations. It might not be so much a matter of location, or even the physical structure of the dwelling itself. Home is about emotions, about the feelings you have living there as opposed to someone else’s space. Surrounded by well-known and recognizable items and rooms, being at home is especially comforting when older adults are struck by the loss of so many familiar things.
Then there’s the benefit of maintaining their independence, which is extremely important to the current generation of older adults. The ability to follow their own schedule, set their own routines, and generally have control over everyday agendas is a significant contributor to life satisfaction.
Research indicates that, given the choice, most older adults would elect to stay at home during retirement and beyond — even if that means moving to a smaller place they can call their own. This is known as “aging in place,” defined by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.” Experts believe this is a noticeable factor in the population’s ability to age happily.
Home versus institutional living
Many older adults today call assisted living facilities or long-term care centers home, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, for those who would rather live outside an institution, there are strong differences between the two environments. When I was the Director of Social Services at a nursing home, the staff there worked very hard to make it a warm and cheerful place.
However, it was hard to deny that it was still a hospital-like setting, and, therefore had a medical and clinical feel about it. Try as they might, our staff was unable to replicate that true “homey” feeling. As a result, many of our residents wanted nothing more than to “go home,” a phrase that to them meant the community residences they’d lived in their entire lives.
Senior mental health: protecting older adults at home
Moving to unfamiliar locations later in life can have a negative impact on senior mental health. One prominent risk is social isolation, which can lead to depression, a greater risk of falls and other injuries, the increased need for hospitalization, and even premature death. Sometimes, the best way to protect the older adult you care about is to ensure they can stay at home. Discuss the prospects of aging in place with your loved one to see that they feel “at home” for years to come!
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.