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Dealing with Mental Health Issues as a Senior
When discussing mental health, are we making sure to include the elderly population? We should, because studies show that 15% of adults aged 60 and over suffer from a mental disorder. And with the world population projected to almost double between 2015 and 2050, more seniors may be affected, making it everyone’s problem.
Here’s what you should know about the types of mental health issues common for seniors and what you can do to care for your own mental health as you age.
Risk factors for elderly mental health disorders
Several things can contribute to worsening mental health, and aging comes with significant and unique challenges that can have their own impact.
A decline in functional ability, loss of independence, memory issues, and health concerns can add to the strain of aging and affect your mental health. You may also be dealing with pain, which on its own can cause mental stress.
However, physical risks aren’t the only things to be concerned about. Socioeconomic concerns, like how to stretch a limited income to cover housing costs or prescription drugs, are also common. Other stressors include changes in relationships, isolation, and a lack of purpose.
The connection between physical and mental health
There’s also a link between physical and mental health. A decline in one can contribute to a decline in the other. Those with heart disease, for example, may have higher rates of depression than those without it. Untreated depression can be linked to poor heart health.
Elder abuse, which can take many forms, may also lead to mental health issues. Physical and verbal abuse, financial abuse, and sexual abuse happen at a significant rate to older adults; 1 in 6 experience some form of abuse.
Types of senior mental health issues
Older adults experience the same types of mental health disorders as younger adults. However, it may be more difficult to notice if the senior isn’t as active in the community or as social as in the past.
Geriatric depression is one form of mental health disorder that occurs in the elderly population. Unipolar depression in elderly adults accounts for 5.7% of years lived with disability. This group visits the doctor and emergency care providers more often, stay in the hospital longer, and use more prescription medication than their peers without depression.
Despite the fact that depression risks grow as a person ages, depression should not be considered a “normal” part of getting older. The CDC reports that 80% of depression diagnoses are treatable.
When patients receive the care they need, it can significantly improve their well-being and prognosis for a more enjoyable life.
The consequences of untreated depression are serious, and these adults may not function as well as those with other health issues, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. The CDC also recommends that all disease prevention programs come with a depression treatment option.
Depression isn’t the only thing to watch for in old age, however. There are other mental health concerns that can appear in the later years, even if they haven’t been diagnosed before.
Anxiety in senior citizens can be less pronounced, and it can include the fear of falling, illness, and mental decline. According to Prevention Lane, 15-50% have symptoms that don’t equal a diagnosis, while 10-15% of seniors show symptoms that can lead to a formal anxiety diagnosis. Diagnosis and treatment for anxiety can also address PTSD concerns, which are also an issue for this age group.
Cognitive decline and dementia may not be traditionally considered “mental health” issues, but they are important to consider as both deal with the brain and how it functions. Experts say that dementia is not a specific diagnosis or disease, but rather an umbrella term that covers a range of signs and symptoms. If it affects thinking to a significant degree and one’s daily life, as a result, then a diagnosis could be made.
Common diseases within the dementia umbrella include Alzheimer’s (it accounts for 60-80% of cases) and vascular dementia, which occurs following a stroke. Other conditions can occur as well, including those that follow an illness or as a result of a nutrient deficiency. Dementia that occurs after an illness may be reversible, though the treatment may not result in mental abilities returning to 100% of the previous capacity.
Mental health-related signs to watch out for
How can someone know if they are feeling just a bit under the weather or if it’s something more concerning? While making a self-diagnosis isn’t recommended, any of the following symptoms may be a sign that mental health counseling or treatment is necessary.
Too much sleep or too little sleep can be a cause for concern. Having problems falling asleep or needing to use medications, drugs, or alcohol to fall asleep or stay asleep should be noted, as well.
Do you have issues with digestion or feeling especially hungry? Are you overeating to feel better? Do you find yourself turning to food for problems or falling into patterns of past eating disorders? These can all be signs of something more serious.
We all feel a certain amount of worry or stress in our daily lives, but feeling on edge, restless, or an overwhelming rush of negative emotions (or even feeling nothing at all) can be symptoms of mental health problems. Take any changes in mood or energy level seriously.
Actions towards others
Note any instances of irritability, outbursts of anger, or aggression with your doctor. If you feel yourself losing control or think you may hurt someone else (or yourself), seek help right away.
There are other symptoms to keep an eye on, and they include the following:
- Obsessive or compulsive thoughts or actions
- Intrusive thoughts that you can’t overcome and that disrupt your work or relationships
- An increased dependence on alcohol, drugs, or prescriptions
- Risky behaviors
- Suicidal thoughts or actions
If you are unsure if a behavior, thought, or feeling is serious or not, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Talk to your physician right away about these issues, or seek emergency care if you can’t reach them and you feel that your life or the life of others are in danger.
Where to find support
Even if you haven't experienced any of the above warning signs, it’s worth learning more about mental health so you can potentially manage it better. Elderly mental health resources are becoming more widely available, thanks to the efforts of physicians, senior care groups, and non-profit organizations with a passion for helping those get through their difficult times.
There are many potential benefits of managing your mental health. They include the ability to realize your full potential, be more productive in activities and hobbies, foster relationships with friends and family, and make new connections within your community.
Best of all, a positive mental health status makes you more likely to deal with the obstacles of life in a healthy and safe way. Stressors don’t have to define you or direct your next move. With a healthy mental state, you can keep living your life and enjoying retirement to the fullest, even during the unexpected.
You can also reach out to the member services team at KelseyCare Advantage. With 50% of adults likely to experience a mental health issue at some point in their lifetime, it’s important to know who you can turn to for elderly mental health support, even if you don’t need it today. Contacting your physician or health professional anytime you have a concern is the best path forward. And if you’re a member of KelseyCare Advantage, look for a provider in your network.