When elders get bored and just sit and stare off in space or do little or nothing to entertain themselves, people close to them often think that it’s just that time of life. Wrong. Experts say older adults tend to be the least prone to boredom than all of the other age groups.
“In old age, boredom is bad for their health,” Dr. Eric Lenze, professor of psychiatry at Washington University, says, “It is often a sign of cognitive fatigue, or loneliness or even depression. It might also be a sign of cognitive difficulties, in that previously enjoyable and challenging activities (such as reading a book or doing a puzzle) become too difficult and the person withdraws from things.”
Lenze, director of the Healthy Mind Lab, is leading studies on elderly boredom, and needs subjects to enroll. The studies hope to learn how to prevent boredom from morphing into depression.
“When talking about boredom, we can think about boring circumstances (like a lousy movie, or a dull job) or we can talk about people who are more prone to being bored regardless of the circumstances,” he said. “In fact, some individuals are more prone to boredom than others. Adults tend to be less prone to boredom — especially older adults — than are children and adolescents.”
The relief for boredom? “Here is where older adults are most similar to kids: they need to be engaged and stimulated,” he said. “Being bored, lonely and inactive is bad for your health, and your brain, in old age.
“Thus, for an older adult, socialization and cognitive engagement are very important; so is physical activity. In fact, one reason older adults often benefit from having a pet is to deal with boredom, both emotionally and physically. It’s probably one reason why having a pet is good for your health in old age.”
How to ward off boredom
Using the web to investigate these areas requires computers. If you don’t have one or yours is decrepit, drop in on a local public library. St. Louis area branches have up-to-date computers and people there who can help you.
Get a pet • Dogs are ideal. A dog will offer companionship and foster exercise, as in taking it for a walk every day. You can find a pet at any of the rescue centers in the St. Louis area. Two examples:
• Humane Society of Missouri has four locations, St. Louis, Maryland Heights, Chesterfield and Union. It’s the largest pet rescue agency in the region and in the United States. There’s a fee for adoption. Check the website (hsmo.org) or Page 2 of this section for available animals as well as large influxes of rescued animals of all sizes and species.
• American Pet Association has one location on Hampton Avenue. It charges a fee for adoption but has liberal adoption policies. Check the website at (apamo.org). It posts photos of available animals. It also has a number of activities for people who wish to interact with animals but can’t adopt.
Read up on what you want. Puppies take a lot of attention to get them housebroken and socialized. The older the dog, the more set in its ways, kind of like people. Read up on breeds that range from high energy to low energy, good with kids or not, lap dogs or not. Shelters will try to pair you with something with the temperament you prefer.
Get back to your old self, before you were old • No matter what you used to enjoy, there’s a version that can be adapted for your age and ability levels. An example: bicycle stores now offer three-wheel versions where falling is next to impossible. Target.com has stabilizing wheels (fancy name for training wheels) for adults to modify a bicycle you may already own.
The city has more than 60 municipal sports leagues, and the county will have more, with members who still drink beer after practice, brag about the old days and other stuff. Participants are more prone to carpool, too. The world has lighter bowling balls, shallower swimming pools, flatter hiking trails … If you used to love something, it’s still there.
Forest Park remains the standard for paved and soft trails in the area, more than 6 miles around the park and more miles internally.
Community Centers • Your local municipal community center or YMCA or YWCA will have volumes of things to get your mind revving, including sitting at coffee tables talking anything with a group of friends, old or new. Community centers are superhighways to friends and clubs, like that every Tuesday breakfast you line up at a local restaurant just to catch up. Call the YMCA at 314-436-1177 or check goo.gl/exx7UU for the Older Adults Program.
Check your nearby public library for activities. The branches of the Jefferson County Library system has activities including knitting, drinking coffee and talking, coloring or drawing, and discussions on books and history.
Volunteer • There’s no better way to take your mind off yourself than to have it on someone else. Schools, youth clubs and other organizations need tutors, chaperones and foster grandparents. Be careful about committing to programs that may go on for years. Start with short-lived activities such as Habitat for Humanity, habitatstl.org, building or remodeling a home on a weekend. Check with your minister if you have one, or call your nearest school system or check with your local United Way. AARP has a Volunteer Wizard, goo.gl/7xQLiG, that will match you with an agency that needs your skills, or try the St. Louis United Way, stl.unitedway.org.
Learn something • All of the local universities, especially state schools, have classes from free to pennies to learn something that intrigues you — from yoga to astrophysics. The community college systems have the most offerings, but get on the websites and check on continuing education classes, or call and ask for a brochure. Here’s an example of a search: Google “St. Louis Community College.” On the website, find the button “continuing education.” In that menu click on “personal enrichment.” Look for “ageless learning.” Find a list there of classes that just keep going, from German history to navigating Medicare. Many are free but require registration, which can be done online. Search the entire website curriculum and find things you may be willing to pay for; most courses have reduced prices for 60 and older.
Teach something • You didn’t get this far in life without knowing something. You can tutor or even teach a class. You don’t have to be a college professor. Those community centers invite experts to talk about anything. Continuing education departments are always looking for people with credentials to teach courses. Check the “contact us” button and ask for the person who schedules classes.
Community activism • Be a troublemaker. Embrace a cause and get behind it, from politics to environment. A comprehensive search tool, the AARP Volunteer Wizard, is at goo.gl/vw6nX1. It runs from serving food in homeless kitchens to revving up support or opposition to legislations. Yep, one day you’re at home watching daytime TV, the next you’re on a bus headed for Jefferson City. AARP has a Missouri Legislative Action Center at goo.gl/rbvEVC. Election time? help your favorite candidate or work for or against a ballot proposition.
Studies to help elder depression.
Dr. Eric Lenze is leading two studies aimed at helping elders with boredom and depression.
• The Optimum Study, optimumstudy.org, is designed to test which medications work best and are safest for adults ages 60 and older with difficult-to-treat depression. To participate, contact the staff at 314-273-7034 or email@example.com.
• The MEDEX study with the Healthy Mind Lab is studying mindfulness and exercise to improve attention and memory. Contact Michelle Voegtle at 314-747-1134 or HealthyMind@psychiatry.wustl.edu or healthymind.wustl.edu.