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Mental Health in Seniors: Knowing When to Get Help
Mental health is just as important as physical health. If you have back pain or joint problems, you’d likely seek treatment to feel better. But if you regularly feel sad or unmotivated to do things you used to enjoy, it’s crucial to remember this is another form of illness that must be treated. Mental illness affects all ages, and seniors are not an exception. In fact, seniors may be more susceptible to mental health disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they have fewer opportunities for socialization and increased stress about becoming sick.
Mental health disorders affect about 20 percent of older adults in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sadly, nearly 1 in 3 of those seniors never receive treatment. However, paying close attention to your older loved one’s emotional and mental health can help ensure they receive the appropriate treatment before their condition worsens.
A decline in mental health is not a normal part of aging. Mental health disorders affect younger adults more often, but seniors are less likely to seek help. Remember, a mental health disorder is not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. It can impact a person’s way of thinking and feeling, and it can even affect their ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis.
Mental Health Problems that Affect Seniors
Like people of any other age, seniors can experience a variety of mental health disorders. Sometimes mental illness can present itself in multiple forms—like depression and anxiety at the same time. The most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in older Americans include:
• Depression and mood disorders, which affect up to 5 percent of seniors living in a regular community, and up to nearly 14 percent of older adults who are hospitalized or receive home care. Unfortunately, these disorders often go undiagnosed and untreated. Depression isn’t just “feeling blue.” It’s a medical condition that worsens if untreated, but with treatment, it can be managed.
• Anxiety disorders, which commonly exist along with depression. They run the spectrum from hoarding syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The above issues are the most common in older adults, but there are other mental health problems that affect the elderly. These include bipolar disorder, dissociative disorders, schizophrenia, substance abuse disorders, and eating disorders.
Symptoms of Declining Mental Health
Especially now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to pay attention to warning signs of mental health problems in your older loved ones. It’s natural for some changes to occur as loved ones get older, but there’s a difference between occasional irritability and a potential mental health concern. Symptoms of mental health disorders in the elderly include:
• Social withdrawal, or lack of interest in doing things they used to enjoy
• Change in appearance or dress, or difficulty maintaining their home or yard
• Depressed mood lasting longer than two weeks
• Decreased or increased appetite; changes in weight
• Feelings of guilt, helplessness, worthlessness, or suicidal thoughts
• Unexplained physical problems like pain or constipation
• Confusion, disorientation, and problems with concentration or decision-making
• Trouble handling finances
• Memory loss, especially recent short-term memory problems
• Unexplained fatigue, loss of energy, or changes in sleep
If your loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms, call a doctor as soon as possible. Only a doctor can accurately diagnose and treat mental health disorders.
Risks for Mental Health Disorders in Older Adults
Sometimes the worries that come with growing older—losing loved ones, medical bills, declining physical health—are enough to take a toll on mental health.
Potential triggers for mental health disorders in the elderly include:
• A dementia-causing illness, like Alzheimer’s
• Illness or loss of a loved one
• Alcohol or substance abuse
• Long-term illness, like cancer or heart disease
• Chronic pain
• Poor diet or malnutrition
• Adverse reactions to medication
• Physical disabilities or loss of mobility
When to Seek Treatment
If you notice your loved one experiencing any concerning symptoms that could point to a developing mental health issue, they need to get help as soon as possible. Many seniors feel most comfortable addressing these concerns with their family physician, who can help them get the care they need to improve their mental state and well-being.
Depending on the diagnosis and severity of the problem, a physician might prescribe medication to help keep conditions like depression or anxiety under control. Your loved one may be referred to a counselor or psychiatrist who can help them address the problems they’re having and work toward better mental health.
Another approach might include connecting your elderly loved one with peers in a support group. For example, if your loved one suffers from depression due to the loss of a loved one, there are support groups with other people experiencing the same feelings. This can be especially helpful for older adults who don’t get much social interaction, and it’s beneficial for them to talk to others who have gone through something similar.
For family and friends, a simple phone call or checking in can do wonders for your loved one’s mental health. This can help improve their mood by allowing them much-needed socialization and giving them an outlet to discuss their feelings.