Mental health issues affect a large percentage of the senior adult population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 20 percent of people age 55 years old or older experience some type of mental health concern.
The CDC also reports that depressive disorders (among the most common disorders in senior adults) often go unrecognized, untreated, or under-treated.
If mental health disorders in senior adults remain untreated, the results can potentially include substance abuse, increased mortality, a decline in the senior’s quality of life, diminished ability to function, and an increased risk for suicide.
Mental Health Challenges of Seniors
Seniors face many challenges to their mental health:
- Deteriorating physical health
- Loss of loved ones
- Cognitive decline
- Loss of purpose
- Financial worries
- Drug interactions or side effects
These challenges are often coupled with a reluctance on the senior’s part to admit or discuss mental health problems and seek treatment.
Depression and Dementia
Depression and dementia are the two most common mental health disorders among seniors.
Clinical depression is not merely a temporary sadness or an occasional down feeling. It is a more severe form of depression. The National Institute of Mental Health defines clinical depression as a mood disorder that causes distressing symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities. Clinical depression can take many different forms, but to be diagnosed, symptoms must be present most of the day, nearly every day for at least two weeks.
Symptoms can include:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies or activities
- Decreased energy, fatigue, or being “slowed down”
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts
- Restlessness or irritability
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause
The good news is that there are highly effective treatments for depression, even late in life.
The Alzheimer’s Association defines dementia as a general term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving, and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia.
The signs of dementia can vary greatly from person to person and will typically become more severe as the disease progresses. Some symptoms are:
- Problems with short-term memory
- Losing track of a purse or wallet
- Confusion about paying bills
- Struggling to plan or prepare meals
- Forgetting appointments
- Wandering away from the home
Although no cure exists for most progressive dementias like Alzheimer’s, there are some medications that may temporarily improve symptoms.
In addition to common mental health issues, it’s important to understand other mental disorders, such as personality disorders. There are 10 types of personality disorders. Symptoms include:
- antisocial behavior
- extreme shyness and feelings of inadequacy
- intense emotions, poor self-image, and impulsive behavior
- inappropriate attention-seeking
- obsession with orderliness, perfection, and control
- suspicion of others
- distorted thinking and eccentric behavior
An estimated 10 percent of older adults suffer from personality disorders. Certain types of psychotherapy are effective in treating these disorders.
Anxiety disorders are a common mood disorder among seniors and can appear in tandem with depression. Excessive and uncontrollable worry, edginess, chronic fatigue, irritability, poor sleep, and tense muscles are symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
What Can Family Members Do?
Even though people are communicating with their senior loved ones by phone, email, social media, or video chat during the pandemic, family members should keep an eye (and ear) out for the following symptoms:
- Changes in dress or appearance
- Decrease or increase in appetite
- Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or helplessness
- Depressed mood for more than two weeks
- Memory loss, particularly short-term memory
- Trouble handling finances
- Signs of stress or anxiety
- Social withdrawal
- Unexplained fatigue
- Sleep changes
Observe Your Loved One
Diagnosing a mental illness should be done by a qualified professional. However, family members can provide valuable information based upon their observations of their loved one, including whether not he or she is taking medications as prescribed.
Have a Conversation
A conversation about mental health and aging becomes necessary when the senior’s mental health issues become debilitating or even dangerous. They may resist the idea of treatment, and you may need to end a discussion that becomes too intense, but you will have to revisit it if symptoms persist.
Medical Power of Attorney
If a senior loved one becomes a danger to himself, herself, or other people, an adult child should seek to obtain medical power of attorney for their senior to make medical decisions on their behalf. To obtain this document, the senior must be considered competent—having the mental capacity to understand the benefits and risks of creating the agreement.
Always provide support for your senior, whether that is listening to their concerns, seeing to their physical and mental needs, or helping with the home and day-to-day activities. This provision may include employing the services of an in-home health agency.
And Finally, Persist
Continually delaying the discussion about mental health or convincing yourself that what you are seeing is a normal part of aging, puts your senior loved one at risk for chronic emotional and physical pain and makes treatment and recovery more difficult.
When it comes to your overall wellbeing, it’s important to consider both physical and mental health. For more healthy aging tips, visit our blog.