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Overcoming mental health issues in the elderly

by Sue Lanza

Aging brings many losses and adjustments along with a few surprises. One thing that is not a given in the aging process is the presence of mental health problems. These issues could range from mild anxiety about changing life roles to a full-blown depression following an illness. Fortunately, many mental health difficulties can be addressed and usually helped with recognition of the concern along with a focused action. Let's discuss the most commonly seen mental health issues in the elderly population and learn together how they can be conquered rather than feared.

The Challenges of Mental Health Care

Although there is no accepted definition, mental health is normally described in a positive sense as the ability of a person to maintain a healthy emotional and behavioral state. When you or a family member experiences an imbalance in this healthy ratio of feelings or actions, you could be diagnosed by a physician or other health care professional as having a mental illness or mental disorders.

If you do receive a diagnosis, you are in good company as the National Institute of Mental Health reports that over twenty-six percent of all adults in the United States may have a mental disorder. That statistic means that one out of every four adults or one member of your singing quartet may be in the midst of a mental illness. A smaller, yet significant group of people, approximately six percent of the whole population, has what is termed a serious mental illness. These statistics are variable as some individuals may endure more than one type of mental disorder at a time.

This can all be quite confusing to someone who is "feeling blue" but doesn't want to bother anyone. All the health care experts agree that mental health illnesses, whether minor or major, tend to be underreported and underrated causing problems for each individual who is struggling as well as society as a whole.

In addition, the President's Commission on Mental Health found these three main obstacles that thwart citizens like yourself from getting the mental health care you many need:

  • Stigma. There still exists a sense of social unacceptability in seeking help for a mental disorder. This reluctance to come forward to the proper professionals and leads to lack of treatment and unclear data on the true needs of the people. The elderly are especially vulnerable to dismissing some symptoms rather than be negatively labeled or present a burden to loved ones.
  • Financial Limitations. Many health care insurance options are found to be less robust when it comes to mental health illness coverage with caps being set on the number of treatments or benefits. You have finally found a practitioner who you find easy to talk to and you could be limited to six sessions by your insurance carrier.
  • Incomplete Delivery System. Seniors often struggle with the proper entry point into the mental health system. One person recently said to me, "I was upset because my dog died but I didn't know who to call or what to do." Unfortunately, researchers predict that the mental health system will remain fragmented for many years to come as no clear initiatives to change have been adopted.

Common Mental Health Issues During Aging

There is a wide range of possible mental health problems but our conversation today deals with two of the most familiar, epression and anxiety.

  • Depression. Coping with the aging process doesn't automatically mean you will experience depression but many elderly people do. Up to twenty percent of all adults may have signs of depression at some point in their life. Depression symptoms such as a decrease in energy, lack of interest in usual activities or change in eating and sleeping habits are more than just an off day. Although there may be no specific event to link to sudden symptoms, it could be related to stress, caretaking of others and even dealing with your own serious illness. The good news with depression is the fact that it is often quite treatable. Many families, like my own, may have a history of depression and despite some reluctance to admit a need for treatment (there is that stigma again!), action usually yields positive results.
  • Anxiety. The swirling changes of aging such as loss, relocation and chronic illness can bring on anxiety symptoms such as nervousness, lack of coping skill or panic. Studies show that about eighteen percent of adults may have felt anxiety at one time or another including a special category of anxiety called post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans and other who have endured wartime are especially vulnerable to anxiety. As with depression, many forms of anxiety can be lessened with medication and/or counseling.

What To Do If You Suspect Mental Illness

If you are recognizing symptoms in yourself, extend yourself a congratulations as the first and hardest step is to acknowledge the need for assistance. Once you are involved in treatment, you should also be mindful of these self-care suggestions:

  • Seek out the care you need and remain your own best advocate
  • Stay connected to your support group of friends and family
  • Exercise, sleep and eat regularly
  • Find a hobby or task that you enjoy to help you manage stress

If you are noticing mental health symptoms in a friend, gently "step up" and guide them to a practitioner who can help them. For some friends, this can be tricky but be quietly persistent. If symptoms grow to a dangerous level like a threat of suicide, don't hesitate to seek immediate help.

Rather than you or a loved one enduring the discomfort of a mental disorder such as depression or anxiety, release your fear and potential embarrassment and get the help you need to continue enjoying your life. You'll be glad you did.