older adult celebrating new year with her family

Are You Ever Too Old to Make a New Year's Resolution?

December 4, 2023
Mark Nathanson, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at CUIMC

Mark Nathanson, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at CUIMC

New Year’s resolutions are often a way to take stock of our lives and aspire to make them better. Sometimes, those resolutions are a little too aspirational. But after many trips around the sun, does it ever make sense to just...stop making them?

Mark Nathanson, MD, is a geriatric psychiatrist who teaches medical students, healthcare professionals, and residents how best to work with older adults. We reached out to him for his perspective on aging and New Year’s resolutions.

His verdict? There is no wrong age to make a New Year’s resolution. In fact, looking forward to the future is a hallmark of good mental health.

What age is “older” when we’re talking about adults?

Geriatrics is broad. The older we get, the more varied we get. You can have an 80-year-old who's running a marathon, and you can have an 80-year-old who doesn't know one minute from the next because they're suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Should older adults make New Year’s resolutions?

Yes. A resolution is important because the implication is you're looking toward the future.

It's one of the things I do as a psychiatrist: Encourage people to look forward. It's a critical element of my evaluation: Are people looking forward to the future, are looking forward to tomorrow, or are they feeling hopeless and helpless? When people look forward, when they are future oriented, it’s a good thing. (a sign of mental health)

This said, there are many seniors who can't make a resolution because they don't have the wherewithal. I hope their family members, caregivers, or home attendants can help them make resolutions, such as getting involved in something where they increase their social networks. And improve the quality of their lives.

What are the health benefits of making New Year's resolutions?

That you're looking towards the future. Promising to make an improvement is something you can look forward to for yourself. The core of an evaluation of someone's mental health is the idea that they're looking forward to tomorrow. Someone who is depressed might say, "‘I don't care if I don't wake up in the morning’." Having something to look forward to is vital for mental health at any age.

Do you have advice for older adults to help make their resolution a reality?

Just get up and do something. Go to a Senior Center, learn a new skill, go to an art group or museum or gym. You can do these things virtually, too, in an online live class or event. These are wonderful things. If I have a patient who tells me that they’re going to church or watching a religious service on TV, it's fantastic. This is what I want people to do. There’s no set amount of time or days or commitment. Do what you can. Just do it.

We often need to help seniors focus on the positive aspects of life. We need to bolster their self-esteem and sense of self: Who am I? Do I feel good about what I'm doing with my life? Do I feel like I'm helping others? Do I feel like things are under my control?

As you get older, your sense of self can get really worn down, particularly when people are isolated and increasingly feeling that they don't matter. It’s a huge issue when people don't plan for after retirement, and they don't recognize how important their work was to their well-being.

It’s important to consider, and help seniors consider, what they have accomplished and what makes them feel appreciated, and knowing they matter in this world. Someone might feel this way because they get phone calls from their children or grandchildren. But there are many people who are so lonely and isolated.

Helping seniors appreciate what they have on a very small level, which is in their control, is so beneficial because there’s so much out of our control.

What’s the one resolution you’d like to see all older adults make?

One of the best things I could write a prescription for would be to have some companionship. Human contact is really important. This is why things were so devastating during COVID—many seniors could not even see their home attendants. That’s why we started the outreach project Friendly Calls to Seniors (Columbia undergrad and graduate students making phone calls to seniors). There's so much new literature now on the significant health problems related to social isolation and loneliness. It's a huge problem.

If someone cannot do it on their own, family members or caregivers can get help them involved in something where they increase their social networks. Any community activity anywhere. It’s called ‘social prescribing’, and it’s vital.

A resolution can be simple. Look around to appreciate what you have and ask yourself: How can I improve the quality of my life? Maybe it’s spending more time with family members, or dancing at a Senior Center, or volunteering. Nourishing your soul is really important and a fantastic, achievable resolution.