Understanding Mental Health in Seniors

Mental Health in Seniors

By Tera Rudloff, MBA, MPA, ACHE, Chief Executive Officer, Voyages of Sugar Land

Mental health problems among older adults are more common than most realize and therefore often left untreated. According to The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), “At least one in four older adults experiences some mental disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or dementia.” As the population is aging, the number of older adults with mental health challenges is expected to double by 2030. While mental health challenges are growing, two-thirds of seniors are not getting the mental health treatment that they need.

The most common mental health problem that seniors face is depression. However, unique to senior adults, many also suffer from sleep and behavioral disorders, cognitive deterioration or confusion as a result of physical disorders or surgical interventions. These challenges have led to seniors ages 85 and older having one of the highest suicide rates of any age group.

To combat the mental health obstacles faced by the senior population, it is important to be able to recognize the warning signs of a mental health disorder and know when to seek out help.

Warning Signs

Warning signs are often overlooked in older adults as depression may be disregarded as an inevitable result of life changes, chronic illness, and/or a disability. By recognizing the signs of a mental health condition and knowing when to seek treatment, the quality of life for a senior can be enhanced.

The National Institute of Mental Health lists the following as the most common warning signs of a mental illness in older adults and seniors.  Keep in mind, most older adults will not use words like ‘depression’ or ‘suicide’ so being observant and noticing changes in behavior or speech are important.

  • Noticeable changes in mood, energy level, or appetite
  • Feeling flat or having trouble feeling positive emotions
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Difficulty concentrating, feeling restless, or on edge
  • Increased worry or feeling stressed
  • Anger, irritability or aggressiveness
  • Ongoing headaches, digestive issues, or pain
  • A need for alcohol or drugs
  • Sadness or hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts, or thoughts of death/dying
  • Engaging in high-risk activities
  • Obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior
  • Thoughts or behaviors that interfere with work, family, or social life
  • Unusual thinking or behaviors that concern other people

Mental health challenges are not a normal part of aging. Look for the warning signs of mental illness and seek professional help if the warning signs persist for a period of longer than two weeks.

Treatment and Care Strategies

Older adults face unique mental health challenges and it is important to find a healthcare provider that is experienced in treating those specific needs. The World Health Organization (WHO) supports treatment and care strategies to address the mental health needs of older adults. Some items to look for when selecting a healthcare provider might include:

  • Providers with specific training in providing care for older people;
  • Providers focused on preventing and managing age-associated chronic diseases including mental, neurological and substance use disorders;
  • Providers developing age-friendly services and settings.

Additionally, the mental health of older adults can be improved through promoting an active and healthy lifestyle. Mental health-specific health promotion for older adults involves creating living conditions and environments that support wellbeing and allow people to lead a healthy life.

Mental Health in the Community

The National Council on Aging states, “Older adults are less likely to access mental health treatment, whether due to stigma, lack of access to providers, or the misconception that conditions like depression, anxiety, or others are a normal part of aging.” Help is available to aid seniors in living a better life.

Good general health and social care is important for promoting older people's health, preventing disease and managing chronic illnesses. If you or someone you love is struggling with a mental health condition, reach out to your primary physician for help. Effective, community-level primary mental health care for older people is crucial. It is equally important to focus on the long-term care of older adults suffering from mental disorders, as well as to provide caregivers with education, training and support.

If you or someone you know may be in need of care, Voyages Behavioral Health is here to help.  Our team of professionals specializes in geriatric behavioral health care and can help you or your loved one. For more information about a Voyages location near you, visit VoyagesHealth.com.