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Senior Mental Health Guide

Written by: Daniel Gleich

Mental health is important for healthy functioning at all ages. Senior adults, however, face unique mental health issues as they age. Around 15% of seniors have formal mental health diagnoses for at least one mental health condition, but millions more live daily with undiagnosed conditions. Seniors should be aware of what mental health issues seniors are especially prone to suffer from, but so should their caregivers and family. Many issues can be treated with appropriate therapy and medication. There are many resources available to help seniors receive diagnoses, support, and treatment for their mental health problems.

Common Mental Health Issues and Symptoms

Depression

More than 4% of seniors living in the United States currently are living with depression. There are two types of depression. One is the sadness and emotional upset caused by experiencing periods of grief or living through a trauma. This is known as situational depression. The other type of depression is caused by chemical imbalances and is known as clinical depression. Severe clinical depression has been shown in research studies to worsen almost all sorts of physical ailments. It can also lead to suicidal ideation. Depression symptoms include a change in attitude, change in sleep habits, withdrawal from friends and family, and refusal to leave home. People who suddenly start giving away their possessions might be suffering from suicidal ideation.

Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia

Around 24 million people worldwide have been diagnosed as having Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's is a type of dementia. Seniors who have a progressive decline in their cognitive and mental capabilities are usually suffering from dementia. No matter the type of dementia someone has, it often goes unnoticed for years. For some people, though, it progresses quickly. Families often are unable to cope with advanced cases of dementia. Memory care units are dedicated to serving dementia patients.

Anxiety

Anxiety is as serious of an issue for seniors as it is for other people. Seniors dealing with anxiety often have high blood pressure and trouble sleeping. Depression and anxiety often appear in the same people. Experts believe that seniors under-report their issues with anxiety because they either don't think it's worth talking about with their doctors or think it's a physical condition.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a serious condition, even if it impacts less than 1% of all senior adults living in the United States. Manic periods in seniors often present with rapid speech, an inability to be still, and/or anger. This can lead to risky behavior and physical harm. After manic periods, most patients experience severe depressive episodes. As many as 10% of all mental health hospitalizations of senior adults are related to bipolar disorder.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia was once thought to begin in early adulthood. Today, however, senior adults represent a quarter of all diagnoses. It's a serious condition that involves paranoia, hallucinations, disturbing thoughts, and sometimes violent outbursts. Some people have very subtle symptoms, and others may present no symptoms until they have a psychotic break.

Symptoms of Mental Health Disorders and Signs of a Crisis

Some specific symptoms are signs of certain mental health conditions, while others can be linked to a variety of physical and mental issues. It's also important to note that symptoms will vary from person to person.

Depression Symptoms

  • Unexplained feelings of sadness
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Moodiness
  • Sleeping all of the time or an inability to sleep
  • Nightmares
  • Apathy

Anxiety Symptoms

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Unexplained sweating
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain

Symptoms That Should Be Mentioned to Health Professionals

Some symptoms won't be apparent to doctors who only see patients in a professional setting. For example, a neat person whose home suddenly becomes messy is a sign of a mental health crisis, as is the opposite. Changes in personal upkeep are also a cause for concern.

Another thing to look for is people who start making poor decisions or displaying signs of confusion. These signs often appear so slowly that families don't see them as early symptoms of dementia. However, multiple episodes of confusion are a cause for concern. An inability to recall words or problems with coherently telling a story are cause for concern.

Changes in appetite can be caused by a variety of mental health issues. Any drastic change in body weight should be discussed with a health professional. It can be a sign of a mental disorder, but it also can be a sign that an elderly person isn't being properly cared for.

What Can Be Done to Help Seniors?

Not all mental health issues can be successfully treated. In seniors, some mental issues are progressive, meaning that they will worsen over time. However, there's help available even for progressive diseases. Some treatments will help delay the worsening of symptoms. The goal of treating ongoing or progressive mental illness is to help senior adults maintain the best quality of life possible for as long as possible.

Prevention

The best treatment for any illness is preventing it in the first place. One important preventive measure for seniors is ensuring that they experience regular social interaction. Regular outings with peers, time with family, and volunteering with local groups are all great ways for seniors to stay mentally engaged. Many organizations purposefully recruit senior volunteers, knowing that the organization and the seniors will benefit from the relationship.

Treatment

The first signs of symptoms don't mean that a senior's life has irrevocably changed. Often, the symptoms can be addressed with appropriate treatment. One treatment is to keep the brain active through games or solo activities like completing a daily crossword. Learning new things also helps preserve mental function. Regular exercise is also beneficial. Continuing with beloved hobbies while picking up new ones is also good for seniors' cognitive and emotional wellness during retirement.

Therapy

When seniors progress past the point of being capable of independent daily life, they will need care, but they'll also still need activities designed to keep them engaged and happy. Supervised walks are great for mental and physical health. Many seniors enjoy swim or water fitness classes specifically designed for their age group. Programs designed to keep senior adults safe and occupied during the day often offer physical activities along with crafts, music, and time for card and board games.

Medicare and Medicaid Assistance for Mental Health Issues

Medicaid and Medicare both have dedicated services for seniors dealing with cognitive or mental health issues. More than 60 million seniors in America have Medicare as their primary health insurance. Medicaid is available for seniors with low incomes. Seniors needing around-the-clock care often need both Medicare and Medicaid to get the care they need.

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