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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

People 85 and older make up Canada’s fastest-growing population segment, increasing at nearly four times the rate of the total. Also growing quickly is the number of evidence-based tools and strategies to help them live longer, happier, and more fulfilling lives, which is good news, since the size of this group will triple over the next few decades.

From research to resources
How does getting older affect our mental health? For Dalhousie University professor of psychiatry Dr. Keri-Leigh Cassidy, “contrary to popular notions that things only get worse as we age, research shows some things can actually improve. Throughout our lives, our brains continue to grow and rewire through neuroplasticity. While we may be more likely to encounter loss and adversity as we age, we can also become better at handling life’s challenges. The research also shows that levels of happiness, compassion, and gratitude increase with age.”

A recognized leader in late-life psychotherapy, mood, and anxiety disorders, Cassidy chairs the Atlantic Seniors’ Mental Health Network and is the clinical academic director of Dalhousie’s geriatric psychiatry program. In 2011, she launched Fountain of Health, a national non-profit initiative that shares the current science on well-being, resilience, and optimal aging while offering webinars and courses for individuals, organizations, and clinicians.

“People often don’t recognize how much influence they can have on their health,” she said. “For example, we now know that genetic factors account for only 25 per cent of human life expectancy and that unhealthy lifestyles are responsible for more than 85 per cent of chronic diseases.”

Cassidy also cites research showing that those who adopt specific habits are more likely to live longer and report higher levels of happiness and satisfaction. As detailed on the Fountain of Health website, these habits fall into general categories such as physical activity, social interaction, brain challenges, mental health self-care, and positive thinking.

“Our thinking, including how we think about aging, is a fascinating new area of research,” she said. “A Yale University study found that people with a more positive self-perception of aging outlived those with a more negative view by 7.5 years. Regular self-care through yoga, mindfulness practice, and healthy sleep habits can also improve mental well-being. Knowing the signs and symptoms of mental illness — and being willing to reach out for professional help, if needed — is also vitally important.”

Life begins at 60
Top Sixty Over Sixty founder Helen Hirsh Spence came to a similar conclusion about the way we think about aging when she approached retirement age. It was then that she began to fully appreciate the harmful impacts of ageism and the stereotypes associated with retirement.

“Common descriptions such as ‘put out to pasture’ or ‘permanently on vacation’ can have a pernicious effect by reinforcing negative views,” she said. “People who internalize these views risk losing their sense of purpose as they age. And as the research shows, they can end up shortening their lives as a result.”

After a career in education, Spence started the for-profit social enterprise in her late 60s to help counter ageism and harness the talents of older adults in Canada. She believes that most of us have long undervalued older people and the contributions they can make to society.

“My life’s work is now dedicated to reframing the conversation about aging,” she said. “There are two parts to Top Sixty Over Sixty: showing businesses and organizations how to benefit from age-diverse workforces, and helping older people reinvent themselves with confidence and agency.”

Practical, evidence-based tips
The increased levels of isolation due to the pandemic make it particularly important to adopt habits that protect both physical and mental health. To help older adults protect their mental wellness during COVID-19, the Mental Health Commission of Canada teamed up with Cassidy to develop a tip sheet with practical, evidence-based guidance. For example, the first tip recommends focusing on what we can control, such as practising self-care and incorporating healthy routines into our daily lives.

Now in her early fifties, Cassidy has become increasingly disciplined about her own self-care.

“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the ongoing pandemic,” she said. “To counter this, I follow the tip about limiting my exposure to news media, especially right before bedtime. I also make time to exercise and express gratitude, and I connect with a group of friends every week by video conference. These habits help me stay balanced and appreciate the good things in life.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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