10 Things Our Grandparents for Mental Health Have Learned Over the Years When it Comes to Managing Wellness

When we launched DC Grandparents Against COVID-19 in 2022, we brought together 500 older, primarily Black adults in Washington, DC, to be agents of change. But, their work didn’t stop there. Now, with HelpAge’s support, they’re taking on mental health, determined to be part of the solution by learning how to effectively support others in their community.

That’s where DC Grandparents for Mental Health comes in.

The idea for Grandparents for Mental Health came from the members of Grandparents Against COVID-19 themselves, observing the mental health crisis and struggles of their loved ones and others in their community. Some have faced their own mental health challenges over the course of their lives and want to stop patterns of secrecy and stigma.

As we reflect on the importance of mental health, we must draw on the experiences of older people and recognize that their wisdom and lessons learned can be passed down and shared. For those still learning to navigate life’s challenges and form healthy coping skills of our own, their knowledge offers an important gift. Here are a few tips and pieces of advice that our DC Grandparents have learned over the years when it comes to managing anxiety, depression, and mental wellness.

1. Find safe spaces.

"If I could tell my younger self one thing about mental health, it would be that it is okay. I didn’t really understand what mental health was all about until I’d gotten older and learned that I needed help, because there were some things that I could not digest or figure out for myself. Some family won’t understand and will criticize, but that’s okay, because something’s going on in their life. But I just had to say ‘this is my life, I’m going to fix myself. If I fix myself, I can help others.’ And that’s why I advocate for mental health. I have a lot of tools in my box I can work with when I feel like I’m going down. I do a lot of things to build me up. But if you are in denial, you will always be in denial. It’s not an easy road, but once you admit you have something going on, you have to laugh, cry, and dance—whatever it takes to build yourself up to a state where you’re okay to talk about it in a safe haven.”

“What helped me is reaching out for help and checking in periodically. Also, surrounding myself with people who understood and had similar experiences so we could go into the world without hiding. There were some root causes that led me to my mental health challenges, so I put a check on that.”

"I started experiencing medical issues in my thirties and my family didn’t know how to deal with it. Because they didn’t know how to deal with it, I didn’t know how to deal with it, and that carried over into my adult age. I wish I could have told myself that it’s okay not to be sure. It’s okay not to know it, but just take it one day at a time. Even if you shed a tear, there’s nothing wrong with sharing a tear and there’s nothing wrong with not having all the answers. It took me a long time to open up and talk about things because you don't want to be scrutinized or criticized. It took me a while, but I know better now and it’s all in who you talk to. It’s important to be able to accept that you don’t know and that is an okay way to be.”

2. Small gestures can make a big difference. So can learning to express empathy and really listen.

"One thing in life I've had to learn is how to slow down. I listen—because people do need someone to hear what they say. Not forcing your opinion, but just listening carefully so they can let you know what they're going through."

"What helps me is to have a friend—and I have two, who have a mentor-type energy and know me from way back—who can just listen to me and say it's going to be okay. For example, I got a letter while I was working on my doctorate that completely changed the course of my career. I called a friend and all he said was 'we're going to get through this,' and it was life-changing for me. Compassion and having someone to just listen to you without offering advice or trying to fix you or saying 'you're right or you're wrong' is sometimes all people need."

3. Set boundaries and take time for yourself.

"I have an only daughter and it was very hard for me to say no to her. She was my everything. But when I learned how to say no, I started my own journey. Now that I went to therapy, I take my ‘me time’ every day and every evening—things I want to solve, things that I love to do. Even if I’m just in myself for a moment and relax my mind. It is a huge part of my life and will be until I leave here."

“One of the things I would tell my younger self is not to be a people pleaser. In the final analysis—yeah, as you go through life, people are going to judge you, they’re going to point a finger at you, they’re going to say you’re this and you’re that, they’re going to have these expectations and we try to live up to them. But in reality, just as we came into this world by ourselves, no one is going to be in that box with you. Be fair to yourselves. You don’t need their permission to be you. Just be who you are."

4. Find small ways to escape into nature.

“When I feel anxious, I usually take a long walk in the park for a mile or so, and there’s something about the trees and the greenery. I can meditate, I can cry, I can pray. I come out feeling much better. I can take a moment to be in myself and my mind.”

“Even if it’s just standing on the porch and looking around, I love nature. I’m a sky watcher and love to see the clouds…the form, the blues, the pinks, the whites. These things seem to alert me that all is well."

5. Don't underestimate the power of affirmations.

“Affirmations are key. ‘I am amazing and astonishing. I am brilliant and beautiful. I’m clever, courageous, and caring. I’m fabulous, funny, and giving; happy, loving, and lovable.' Things you can put in your spirit to feel better.”

6. Meditate—and redefine meditation.

“Meditation is number one for me when I’m feeling anxious or depressed. Just closing my eyes and breathing out, breathing in. Once a year at my community center, we have a class we go to when we volunteer and I learned it there. It felt very difficult at first but once we got used to it, it was very soothing and helpful."

7. Surround yourself with something you love.

"Sometimes it's just getting in my car, turning the volume all the way up, and pulling up music from YouTube—or in my apartment if I know my neighbors aren't home. I'll just go to YouTube, turn it up, and just surround myself with good energy from the lyrics of a song that means something. Other times, it's going near the water and immersing myself, even if it's sitting on a bench and looking out at the Anacostia River."

8. Step outside of yourself.

"I like to go for a drive—somewhere far to give myself the time to relax my mind. Also, going to help somebody is important for me. If I know somebody in my church is sick, sometimes taking your mind off of yourself and being there for someone else helps with the stress and allows me to help them with whatever they need or are going through."

“I’m a caregiver, which isn’t easy. I like to go away into a good book. I enjoy a lot of biographies—I like to get into other people’s business. But a good book, or watching comedy shows or game shows that make me laugh and engage with others, take me away into another zone.”

9. Tap into the power of art and poetry.

“Art and poetry are my coping skill. I can always go there and come back. When I get really anxious, I do sculpture. I just did a spring sculpture expressing my mind and how I feel about life itself. Sometimes, it's just finding a poem that captures how I feel.”

One of our DC Grandparent’s favorite poems to refer back to is Max Ehrmann’s "Desiderata."

10. Remember: We can learn at any age how to support others who are experiencing mental health challenges.

“If I could give advice to my younger self about mental health, it would be that it is health. It is just as important as your physical health—exercising, diet, etc. And, there are ways, such as yoga or exercise or meditation especially, and things you can do to keep yourself mentally healthy. I would tell myself to identify the triggers that might cause mental stress and educate myself around the silent symptoms of mental health to recognize and see someone who may be bullied or mistreated in some way. And if you do have a friend who may have some of those symptoms, they’re beautiful and not to be bullied or put down. It’s our responsibility to keep learning how we can support them.”

Scroll to Top