This blog is one way for us at Proactive Seniors to share information that may be of interest to you, our readers, which is why you will occasionally see guest posts such as this one.
by Gabrielle Baglino, Oak Street Health
Mental health among older adults affects everyone, but it isn’t discussed enough—primarily because the reporting of mental health concerns among the elder population is low, and it can be difficult to see the signs due to comorbidities.
An estimated 20% of seniors have a mental health condition, the most common being cognitive impairment, anxiety, and mood disorders such as depression. However, seniors are at least 40% less likely than younger people to seek or receive treatment.
Due to cognitive decline, neurological conditions, and physical health deficits, having a more holistic understanding of mental health among the aged population is the first step toward helping them improve their mental health and quality of life.
Evaluating Potential Risk Factors
Many of the mental health stressors among the older adult population are similar to those experienced by their younger counterparts. This includes stress related to finances, housing, and healthcare. In addition, with age comes concerns about chronic conditions, the requirement for long-term care, social isolation, and feelings of loneliness. Observing friends and family members in their age group passing away can be mentally taxing as well.
Elders are also highly susceptible to physical, psychological, sexual harassment, and financial abuse. In fact, around one in six among the elderly experience some form of elder abuse. A lot of what seniors considered to be within their control throughout their life slips away with age, increasing their vulnerability—and decreasing their options for assistance.
The limited diagnosis of mental health disorders among seniors contributes to the problem. Since most medical management is aimed primarily at their physical ailments, it can leave mental health issues undiscovered and untreated. Behavioral changes can be obscured by age-related stereotypes, which can further decrease access to care.
Over time, these factors can contribute to diminished mental health and a significant treatment gap for mental health disorders among the elderly.
How to Identify Mental Health Issues Among Seniors
Crossing into the older demographic can be a significant transition for many adults. Much of what they have considered normal over the years slowly shifts to a “new normal.” This can include accepting help, getting support with finances and accommodating frailty that comes with age—all of which can be a challenge for previously independent individuals.
With age, a few changes in cognition are to be expected. These include occasionally forgetting names, clumsiness, and losing track of time.
However, significant memory loss, avoiding family, isolation, lapses in time, outbursts of anger, and a significant decline in cognition require special attention. When visiting older family members, observe their surroundings. Unkempt environments, disheveled attire, and lack of attention to basic hygiene are signs of a possible underlying mental health disorder.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 7% of the older generation experience depression. This can be unipolar depression or a depressed state in manic-depressive bipolar disorder. Occasional sadness and grieving can be normal among seniors. However, red flags of a larger issue include feelings of hopelessness, guilt, suicidal ideation, lack of concentration, and loss of interest in daily activities.
It is important to identify how physical conditions can manifest as mental health disorders. Alcohol and substance abuse can be underlying causes of depression and anxiety. So can exposure to toxic chemicals, diabetes, thyroid disease, kidney dysfunction, and vitamin deficiency. Even neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, or previous stroke can result in mental health disorders.
To properly manage symptoms that present as mental health issues, it’s critical to treat the underlying physical condition.
Addressing Mental Health Requirements Among the Elderly
Foremost when treating the mental health needs of seniors is identifying when assistance is needed. Infrastructure should not only focus on physical support, but it should also invest in resources for mental wellbeing.
Caregivers need to be trained to identify mental health risks that are common among the elderly. Signs can be missed, especially considering caregiver needs often also go unmet. To effectively diagnose mental health conditions in the older population, it is important to cater to the needs of seniors as well as their caretakers.
While physical rehabilitation is a mainstay within most facilities for the elderly, the promotion of mental health should be part of in-house programs. This can include means to provide security, financial freedom, and social programs for those who live alone within communities.
Primary care doctors who look after the elderly should also be encouraged to reach beyond their patients’ physical needs. Medical professionals should allow for time to counsel their patients, understand their limitations, and refer them to psychologists.
Since elderly individuals are likely to be taking medication, behavioral and environmental changes should be employed in terms of management versus simply adding to their list of medications.
Managing underlying physical conditions significantly benefits the older population. Limiting their need for support, encouraging independence, and treating medical disorders effectively have been shown to significantly improve overall mental wellbeing among the elderly individuals.
Building social interactions and investing in communities for the elderly also helps lower the mental health burden among the elderly. This not only benefits their mental wellbeing but also boosts physical wellbeing, which further supports mental health.
Systems need to be in place to prevent elder abuse. Investing in personnel, running background checks, and helping the elderly build strong community ties helps to protect them. Education that will equip them to identify abuse should also be conducted throughout communities with aging populations.
For elders that are alone and caring for themselves – incorporating simple things like medical alert necklaces, alarm systems and even a pet can help create a sense of autonomy and purpose.
Mentally healthy older adults benefit the community at large. When one section of society struggles as a consequence of their mental health, it impacts the whole community. Taking steps to improve the mental health of the elderly is important for everyone.
If you have any concerns that Proactive Seniors may be able to help with, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us on 403 809 1971.