Despite mental health disorders affecting around 20% of people aged 55 and older, many cases go untreated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in three older adults don’t receive the mental health support they need.
As your loved ones age, it’s normal for them to undergo changes. However, mental illness is not necessarily a natural part of aging, and many mental health illnesses such as anxiety and depression often go undiagnosed and untreated in seniors. Insufficient treatment and support can have serious consequences for both older adults and their families including diminished functioning, poor quality of life, and heightened risk of suicide.
Fortunately, the majority of mental health issues that plague seniors respond well to treatment. But, in order for seniors to get well, they must first get the mental health support they need. The first step is understanding the factors holding seniors back from receiving treatment. From there, you must learn to recognize the signs of common mental health concerns as well as understand the types of available treatment and coping mechanisms.
Why Seniors Don’t Get the Help They Need
Before you can make a plan for how to ensure the older adults in your life receive the mental health support they need, you must first examine the factors holding seniors back from getting the help they need. To start, misdiagnosis and altogether avoidance of mental health issues are common. When discussing health issues with their health professionals, seniors are more likely to report physical symptoms than psychiatric ailments.
Of the older adults that do bring up mental health problems to their physicians, only half receive any treatment. Even trained health professionals frequently disregard anxiety and depression as normal parts of aging.
For example, doctors or caretakers might write off an issue as serious as persistent cognitive or memory loss as forgetfulness due to old age. When properly diagnosed it is also important to then consider whom you will seek to manage their memory care. Some facilities specialize in providing senior care with memory as a primary focus.
This guide discusses senior isolation trends from the past year and is medically reviewed by geriatrician Dr. Jean-Smith and Erica Curcio, a licensed mental health counselor specializing in art therapy for people living with dementia.
You can view it here: Guide to senior isolation and sleep
With the focus on physical health concerns, mental health is left to deteriorate following the diagnosis of a stroke, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, arthritis, or diabetes. Furthermore, some medications used to treat these illnesses and others can exacerbate or cause mental health issues. In short, mental health takes a backseat to other issues, and as an underserved segment of society, seniors don’t always receive the support they need.
Signs of Common Mental Health Concerns for Seniors
In order to ensure your loved ones get the mental health support they need, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with the various signs of common mental health concerns for seniors. Simply knowing what to watch out for can make all the difference and positions you to be a conscious advocate for the seniors in your life.
The most common mental health issue affecting older adults is severe cognitive impairment or dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, approximately 5 million seniors aged 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease. To put that number in perspective, around 10% of older adults are living with this disease.
Some of the psychological disorders affecting the senior population include depression and mood disorders. Older adults who receive home health care or are hospitalized are the most at-risk, and according to the CDC, up to 13.5% of seniors aged 65 and older have depression or another type of mood disorder. So your loved one’s case doesn’t go undiagnosed and untreated, be on the lookout for the signs of these all too common mental health concerns.
If you notice that the older adult in your life is having consistent trouble sleeping or concentrating, it could be a sign of an underlying mental health issue. Deep and prolonged sadness (lasting longer than two weeks) might indicate geriatric depression. Someone exhibiting frequent trouble remembering things or being confused in familiar settings could have severe cognitive impairment or dementia. You should seek professional help if a loved one starts abusing alcohol or taking more medication than prescribed.
Types of Available Treatment and Coping Mechanisms
As soon as you note any signs of a potential mental health concern, you should consult your loved one’s primary health care provider. Because mental health is so interconnected with physical health, immediately addressing your older adult’s issues is imperative. Experts believe that poor mental health can slow physical healing.
If your loved one is taking multiple medications to manage a variety of illnesses, talk to the doctor to understand how the drugs might interact with one other. Medications have been known to affect mood and behavior.
In addition to consulting a health professional, you can support your loved one by encouraging them to exercise and maintain social connections. Walking and socializing as well as reading are holistic coping mechanisms that can improve mental health. Other treatment options include psychotherapy and antidepressant medication. You should know what insurance covers, and if necessary, research plans with more comprehensive mental health coverage.
On a more basic level, take the time to see if there’s a discernable problem at the root of your senior’s anxiety or depression. Solving problems, such as home security, can lower stress and improve a person’s mood. Installing a security camera system or outfitting your senior with a wearable medical alert device can help an older adult feel more comfortable in their home.
Knowing available treatments and coping mechanisms is an important part of ensuring seniors get the mental health support they need. Since the mental health issues of older adults often go undiagnosed and untreated, it’s crucial that you work in tandem with healthcare professionals to notice any changes in your loved one’s mood and behavior. With the proper support, seniors with mental health problems can manage them and live healthier lives.