Older people may have trouble remembering some things, but not others. Short-term memory (ie, less than 30 minutes) worsens as we age. Although we often hear that long-term memory (weeks to months) also worsens as we age, this may depend more on getting information into our memory, rather than remembering it later. Very long-term memory (months to years) is basically permanent, collected through a lifetime of day-to-day education and experience. This type of memory increases from the age of 20 to about the age of 50 and then remains essentially the same until well after 70. Most of us learn to adapt to changes in learning and memory. We slow down and do things more carefully. We think about things a little longer to remember them. We may avoid new or strange environments. As a result, any memory losses may not even be noticed until we experience a major life change, such as moving or the death of a spouse.
As we get older, the death of friends and family becomes more common. Losing and grieving for a spouse is one of the most traumatic situations commonly faced by older adults. More than 1 million spouses (mostly women) were widowed in the United States in 2003. This number is estimated to increase to 1.5 million every year by 2030. Other losses that may also cause grief include loss of sight or hearing and losses in function caused by illnesses (eg, trouble walking from arthritis). These and other negative life events place a heavy burden on older adults. Most people grieve intensely for 6-12 months after a major loss. Generally, we feel depressed and withdraw from others. After about a year, we begin to accept the loss and start to interact more with friends and family. Going through the grieving process is an important part of emotional healing, and we shouldn't try to ignore it or pretend it isn't there. Getting treatment for depression can also help avoid the mental and physical health problems associated with a grieving process that goes on far longer than usual.
Everyone must learn to manage both the stresses caused by major life events and the routine stresses of day-to-day life. Too much stress can greatly affect our physical health and ability to function, as well as our mental health and overall well-being. This includes enthusiasm for life and the ability to enjoy social interactions. Problems caused by stress often relate to how we deal with the stressful situation. There are positive ways to deal with stress, even when the stress is beyond our control (eg, the death of a loved one). Learning positive behaviors can improve how we understand and cope with stress. For example, we can learn how to take more control of a stressful situation. We can also become more aware of social services and programs that are available. Family counseling and therapy can also strengthen social relationships with family and friends.
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