01 Apr Fitness–it’s all in your head
“Sure as shootin,” you wouldn’t want to come up against Mr. Williams* in the courtroom. Clever-minded and sharp-tongued, he was a passionate prosecutor.
For some forty years he represented the Crown, but after two heart attacks and one bypass surgery, Williams fell into a depression that had him fighting for his own mental health.
Of course sadness and fear of mortality are natural, but according to heart.org, up to 33 percent of heart attack patients develop some degree of depression. Along with other mental health concerns, it’s something older folks are often reluctant to admit.
“My dad grew up in a small town with one psychiatrist, where you knew every physician. He worked to put himself through university—you didn’t admit if there was something wrong with your head—that was a weakness,” Katie* says.
Williams retired after his surgery, but adjusting to a quiet life wasn’t easy for the former workaholic. Struggling to find the same satisfaction he gained from his career, he grew morose. When it came time to downsize the family home, he became overwhelmed.
“This was a man who had hundreds of twist ties and bags of old shoelaces in the garage. He never threw out anything!” Katie explains.
Williams grew up on a farm, where supplies were sometimes limited and innovation was always in demand. You never knew when those twist ties might be just the thing to piece something together.
Katie took time off work, flying out to help her parents to sort and pack, but upon arrival, was stunned at her dad’s decline. “He was shuffling, his head down…just shuffling down the hallway.”
Hospitalization, medication, and lots of love, helped Williams get back on track and enjoy the next decade-plus of his wonderful life. But Katie wishes her dad had reached out sooner.
“One in five of us will experience mental illness in our lives,” said Aaryn Secker, Community Education Facilitator with the Canadian Mental Health Association, Kelowna. “But 100 percent of us are vulnerable.”
Secker presented Wise and Well Fitness, one of many free talks offered as part of the fifth annual Embrace Aging month, a community collaboration of UBC Okanagan’s Institute for Healthy Living and Chronic Disease Prevention, Interior Health, and Interior Savings.
The stigma that Williams felt still exists, particularly among the older population, Secker said. “We think people should suck it up, just get over it and for adults 55 and older, other issues get in the way.”
They may be concerned their bosses or colleagues will find out and it will affect their jobs. They may fear being diagnosed with dementia, which has similar signs. In fact, William was convinced he was experiencing sudden onset of dementia when his depression peaked.
If seniors admit to mental health struggles, will they be allowed to drive? Live independently?
They may not want to burden the busy people in their lives, or they may just accept mental illness as part of the aging process. After all, a lot of things don’t work the way they used to.
“Mental fitness has a lot of similarities to physical fitness,” Secker said. “You have to practice it regularly and you need motivation. You can’t just go to the gym once in the New Year if your goal is to get fit by spring… Mental fitness is about creating and strengthening connections in the brain.”
Changing pathways in the brain takes time but it can be done. We can strengthen our neuroplasticity by increasing our cognitive demand—pushing to learn new things and going beyond our comfort zones.
“Mental fitness is not just about your IQ. Sorry Alex Trebek, but it’s not a game of Jeopardy,” Secker said. “It’s problem-solving, creativity, adaptability, perspective, self-regulation, and focus.”
What are you passionate about? Maybe it’s reading, baking, travel, hiking, spending time with loved ones. Do these things often to fill the well so that when hard times hit—and they will—your reservoir will be full, making you more resilient.
“People who are resilient are always looking for the learning in something that goes wrong,” Secker said. “It makes it easier to live with yourself but also for others to live with you.”
To improve your mental fitness, practice mindfulness and positive self talk. Engage in physical activities that align with your values, like walking outside if you love nature.
Lastly, lose the stigma. We are complex beings and it is not a weakness to admit to mental health struggles.
Williams is a fine example. A fierce defender of law and order, he is remembered most for his empathetic heart as he negotiated fair trials for promising young people who had taken wrong turns but deserved second chances.
“Sometimes we forget our brains are in our heads and our heads are part of our bodies,” Secker said.
Mental fitness is part of physical fitness and that’s what makes for a healthy, happy life.