Mental health: Activity benefits aging

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. Just as Jesus healed people struggling with mental, emotional and physical ailments, United Methodists reach out to their sisters and brothers who seek healing. In this series, United Methodist News Service shares stories of individuals and congregations tackling the challenges of mental health through a variety of ministries.

Aging well and maintaining brain fitness are very hot topics, especially as baby boomers race toward turning 60 at the rate of one every seven seconds. In our rapidly graying denomination in the U.S., United Methodist congregations can play a major role in helping older members achieve "positive aging."

Many people believe that maintaining good mental health is a critical component in the process of successful aging. However, it is important to remember that health is a holistic concept. Mental health is directly connected to physical health, which is connected to spiritual health. The holistic approach involves mind, body and spirit.

How might we define the components of good mental health as we age in today's busy and complex world? Some "right" answers are: feeling good about oneself, having a meaningful faith, maintaining good physical health, having fun, enjoying close relationships with friends, not becoming overwhelmed by negative thoughts and emotions, exhibiting clear and positive thinking, and maintaining a sense of purpose in life. That sounds good, right? Sure it does!

The church can play a vital role in reaching out to older adults. Here are a few ideas.

  • Encourage older adults to exhibit a meaningful faith. Invitethem to share their wisdom and witness. How has God been an integral part of their lives? One "positively aging" church includes a column in its newsletter where older adults witness to their faith. This column has become a gift to writers and readers. Sharing faith stories is a marvelous way to keep one's mind healthy. The added bonus is that it prompts memories and stories in others. A coffee-and-conversation group meets after the newsletter comes out and anyone can comment and discuss.
  • Offer fun opportunities to interact with others. Possibilities include movies, games, talent shows and show-and-tell exercises about favorite subjects. Laughter is, indeed, the best medicine.
  • Help people to stay healthy physically. Offer classes in many activities from yoga or tai chi, to chair-exercise classes, to planned walking events, to health fairs, to a weight-management program. The possibilities are endless. Exercise is a key component of mental health because it keeps an abundant supply of oxygen-rich blood circulating through the body and the brain.
  • Provide small-group studies on all aspects of engaging in Christ-centered life. Ask participants to share stories and strengthen relationships in a safe environment. I facilitated a study on the life and teachings of Jesus. The "13-week" study lasted nearly a year! Participants created their own learning experience by asking questions and then figuring out where to find answers. Sometimes we asked the senior pastor to share her insights; sometimes we "Googled" information; sometimes we share stories of our faith that were gleaned from or that supported the Scriptural information presented. For me, it was an amazing teaching and learning experience. It activated participants' minds as we grew together in our faith.
  • Facilitate support groups to help people deal with loss in healthy ways. Often, having a good listener and a safe environment is just what the doctor ordered. Many churches offer support groups for people in crisis. In one congregation, a group of women came together once a month around a program for learning about cancer. Two participants who were fighting this battle realized they did not have to do it alone. What a blessing! The group began 15 years ago, and while both women succumbed to this awful disease, the bonds the women formed have kept the group together and helped them to face other crises in their lives.
  • Recruit older adults to volunteer out of their gifts and passions. In a study, older adults responded to a question about how useful they felt. There was a positive correlation between their sense of usefulness and good mental health. Lifespan, a help-related volunteer organization in Rochester, N.Y., claims in its advertising, "When you do good, you feel good." The national church through NOMADS and the local church can discover many ways to help people volunteer their time, their expertise and their passion by following the mandate of Christ - love one another.

We are aware of many ways to keep mentally alert and healthy. As a church, we must not let our older members languish and become stagnant. It is a challenge for congregations to reach out in healthy, holistic ways to keep everyone mentally agile and fit.

May it be so.

*Bruce is passionate about teaching/learning with older adults.She serves as the Northeastern Jurisdiction representative to the United Methodist Board of Discipleship's Committee on Older Adult Ministry.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

First published May 16, 2013.

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