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Mental Health in the Elderly Population

Mental Health in the Elderly Population, Seniors and mental health, Depression, Dementia, Anxiety, Substance use disorder, Signs of mental health disorder,

Mental health often changes with age, but it’s not a concern that simply goes away. Around 14 percent of adults over the age of 60 live with a mental health disorder, and around a quarter of deaths by suicide occur in that same age range, the highest rate of suicide for any age group. At Carolina Dunes Behavioral Health in Leland, North Carolina, we help seniors and their families to manage mental health concerns and behavioral issues every day, and we want older adults and their caregivers to be mindful of specific mental health concerns that the elderly often face and which are easily discounted as a normal part of aging.

Risk Factors Among Seniors

Older people face unique challenges that are less common among younger people:

  • Death – older people are more likely to lose or have already lost their parents, siblings, spouse, and friends
  • Physical ailments due to declining health, which can lead to a decrease in independence
  • Decreased income and sense of purpose after retirement or disability
  • Social isolation and loneliness
  • Elder abuse – sexual, verbal, physical, financial, etc.
  • Stresses of caregiving for their partner

Signs of Mental Illness in Older Adults

The signs of mental illness in older people are similar to what one might see in a younger person:

  • Decreased energy and changes in sleeping habits – either too little or too much sleep
  • Trouble with memory and focus
  • Frequent headaches, pain, or digestive trouble
  • Engaging in behaviors that create issues with work, family, or friends or which are dangerous
  • Seeing, hearing, or feeling things other people cannot 
  • Changes in mood, which can manifest in several different ways:
    • Lack of positive emotions
    • Anger or irritability
    • Increased worry
    • Sadness or hopelessness
    • Feeling restless or on edge
    • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

Common Mental Health Conditions Among Seniors

Older adults are especially susceptible to the following behavioral health concerns:

Depression – This condition is frequently misdiagnosed and undertreated due to healthcare providers identifying symptoms as a normal part of the aging process. The patient may also hold this view and not know their symptoms are treatable. Older adults with chronic physical health conditions are at especially high risk for developing depression.

Anxiety – Many older adults who experience depression are also struggling with anxiety, with a higher reported rate of occurrence among women than men. The many changes that older adults face, including financial worries, health problems, isolation, loneliness, loss of independence, and end-of-life planning, are often underlying causes of anxiety. A combination of medication and therapy can often make anxiety more manageable for seniors.

Dementia – While dementia is recognized as a common affliction of the elderly, it is not always seen as a mental health concern. People who are struggling with dementia may:

    • Get lost in familiar locations
    • Say the wrong word to refer to familiar items
    • Struggle to remember things they once knew
    • No longer be able to complete daily tasks
  • Experience changes in their personality or behavior

Because dementia can share symptoms with other conditions, it is important that anyone who exhibits the signs above see their primary care doctor for a physical, which may lead to brain scans and various tests to rule out other causes. 

Substance Use Disorder Among Seniors

Addiction is a concern a person can develop at any age. While it may seem odd to think of a grandparent getting drunk or high, the Baby Boomers, who are currently entering their golden years, are the same generation that experimented with recreational drug use in the 1960s. Their attitudes about substance use may not be as conservative as younger generations might assume. As a person ages, their use of substances can create issues they did not experience previously. Older bodies become less able to handle heavy substance use:

  • The liver may be less able to tolerate large amounts of alcohol.
  • Seniors are typically on more medications than their younger counterparts, which can place them at higher risk for drug interactions between their prescribed medications and alcohol or other drugs.
  • Seniors who attempt to avoid drug interactions may skip prescription medications they need for serious health concerns and place themselves in danger as a result.
  • Alcohol and illicit drugs may make memory issues worse, leading older patients to accidentally overdose when they forget they have already taken their medications and take them again or get confused about which pills are which.

How to Help Our Elderly Loved Ones’ Mental Health

Friends and family members who are worried about their elderly loved ones’ mental health can take several steps to ensure they are getting the support they need:

    • Ask questions and listen – Allow them to talk about how they are feeling and listen for signs that they could be struggling.
    • Consult a pharmacist – Take a list of their medications to the pharmacy and inquire if anything they are taking could be contributing to issues they are experiencing. Some medications or combinations of medications can cause fatigue or sleeping issues, and the pharmacist may be able to provide helpful suggestions.
    • Help them talk to their doctor – If your loved one is not willing or able to convey their struggles to their doctor, it may be helpful for you to attend an appointment with them, to help relay what you are seeing. The doctor may be able to conduct tests, modify their medications, or refer them to a specialist to address issues
    • Request an evaluation – Mental health providers who are experienced in treating geriatric mental health concerns can help your loved one to manage their symptoms. 

At Carolina Dunes Behavioral Health, we are dedicated to meeting the mental behavioral health needs of older adults. Our team is experienced in working with seniors and their families to ensure the best quality of life possible.

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