Mental Health Awareness for Older Adults
Good mental health is important at all ages, and it especially matters as we age in place. Every May, we celebrate Older Americans Month. May is also Mental Health Awareness Month. With the Older Americans Month theme of “Age My Way,” we’ll discuss mental health as a part of elderhood, a developmental stage encompassing later life.
Older adults who plan to stay in their homes, age in place, and live independently in their communities benefit from mental wellness. Let’s explore common mental health issues in older adults, risk factors, warning signs, and tips for improving mental health as we all age.
What are the risk factors for seniors to develop mental health issues?
Mental health issues can have different causes and may have multiple social, physical, and psychological factors. Even currently healthy older adults may develop mental health problems in the future that interferes with a person’s life. According to GreatSeniorLiving.com, here are 9 common risk factors to be aware of:
- Medical problems: Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and Parkinson’s Disease are some of the medical conditions that can contribute to developing mental health issues. In addition, some medications can increase the risk of developing depression or other mental health conditions.
- Loss of independence: When seniors lose their ability to take care of themselves on a daily basis, they can be at a higher risk of experiencing setbacks to their mental well-being. Factors like chronic pain, decreased mobility, and other functional challenges increase that risk.
- Loss of close friends or family members: It’s normal and necessary to grieve for those we love and care about when they die. Many seniors experience grief as they begin to lose more of their long-time friends, partners, or spouses.
- A drop in economic status: For many seniors, retirement requires a simpler lifestyle than they’re used to, which often means engaging in different activities or moving into new residential settings. Older adults with disabilities may require even greater adjustments to their living situations.
- Loneliness or social isolation: Older adults are often more prone to feelings of abandonment or isolation because of disabilities, medical problems, the loss of people in their lives, or other factors like the Covid-19 pandemic. Feelings of isolation can contribute to the development of depression and other mental health problems.
- Periods of heightened stress: Anything that causes more stress than usual or that causes prolonged stress—such as traumatic events, taking care of a chronically or terminally ill loved one, or major changes to finances, important relationships, or living circumstances—can play a role in the development of a mental health issue.
- Elder abuse or neglect: The World Health Organization says that almost 17% of all seniors experience elder abuse. Some seniors are emotionally, physically, psychologically, sexually, or financially abused—often by people they know or trust. The result is a loss of dignity that can lead to mental health challenges.
- Poor nutrition: Regardless of whether it’s by choice, due to neglect, or financial reasons, having a poor diet can deprive older adults of needed nutrients for a healthy brain and body. Over time, a lack of proper nutrition can decrease someone’s mental well-being. Additionally, developing mental health issues increases when seniors regularly drink alcohol or consume illicit substances.
- Family history: For some people, genetics play a contributing role in their mental health. A predisposition to certain mental illnesses can be passed on from one generation to the next, which means that some people are at higher risk than others based on nothing more than their family histories.
What are common warning signs of mental health issues in older adults?
Sometimes the signs of mental illness are not obvious and may be overlooked. It’s essential to know warning signs to watch out for. Here is a list from GreatSeniorLiving.com:
- Sad or hopeless feelings that last more than a couple of weeks
- Unusual changes to mood, appetite, or energy levels
- Persistent sleeping difficulties or over-sleeping
- Persistent troubles with concentration
- Restlessness or feelings of being “on-edge”
- Decreased ability to cope with everyday stress
- Heightened irritability, hostility, or anger
- High-risk behaviors or actions that scare other people
- Persistent worrying about relationships, health, or financial matters
- Obsessive thoughts or compulsive actions that disrupt day-to-day living
- A sense of emotional numbness
- Confusion in familiar settings or recurring difficulties with memory
- Heavier-than-normal alcohol consumption
- Excessive consumption of prescribed medications
- Persistent pain, headaches, or issues with digestion
- Suicidal thinking
What are some mental health tips for older adults?
A sense of positive mental well-being is part of healthy aging. Here are 14 tips from GreatSeniorLiving.com for looking after mental well-being:
- Remember that seniors are never too old to make changes: It’s never too late to make lifestyle choices to better support mental well-being, and even small changes can add up to make a big difference. Leah Daily, Director of Sales at Falcon’s Landing, shares that “reports have indicated that people 50 and over think they are 10 years younger than they are and those 65-75 even think/feel up to 19 years younger.” (Psychology Today).
- Eat a healthy diet: Focus on eating a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, high-quality proteins, healthy fats, whole grains, and calcium-rich foods. As much as possible, also avoid sugar, refined carbs, and heavily processed foods. Good nutrition has powerful, positive effects on mental health.
- Stay physically active: Older adults are likely to feel better both physically and mentally by putting aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises into their weekly routine. Go for 30-minute walks multiple times each week. CEO of Goodwin House Rob Liebreich adds, “through movement, the body’s endorphins are released making one feel better. This includes moving one’s body because of laughter.” #laughteristhebestmedicine 🤣
- Maintain good sleeping habits: It’s a myth that older adults need less sleep than younger adults. They need the same amount, so habits of going to bed and getting up at the same times each day are good to maintain. Getting enough sleep is linked to good mental health. Doctors can diagnose medical problems like sleep apnea, which interfere with good sleep hygiene.
- Keep learning new things: Read books, do brain teasers, fill out crossword puzzles, or engage in other activities that actively stimulate the mind. Goodwin House offers, Stronger Memory, a clinically studied program designed to stimulate the part of the brain that helps retrieve memories. It’s free for all seniors.
- Get the support of friends and family: Maintaining strong social connections is one of the best ways to help prevent mental health issues from disrupting an older adult’s life. Good friends and supportive loved ones can help improve a senior’s outlook and lower their stress. They also may be able to help solve any practical issues such as finding reliable transportation or managing bill paying.
- Stay involved: Having a purpose by maintaining connections improves mental well-being. Rob Liebreich, CEO of Goodwin House, shares, “when any of us wakes up with the idea that we can make a positive difference in the world, it automatically provides an amazing boost to one’s day.” Participating in a club, church group, or volunteering for a cause can help older adults feel connected and filled with purpose. Staying involved in their community can also boost their self-esteem, become more resilient to stress, build readiness, and improve coping reserve.
- Stand up for mental health needs: Ignore people who tell seniors to “suck it up.” Don’t let ignorance or negative attitudes of other people stand in the way of seeking treatment and recovery. This is also true for older adults’ personal security and sense of independence. Nobody has the right to abuse their trust or prevent them from seeking the help they need.
- Get help immediately if in distress: Don’t wait, especially if an older adult is contemplating suicide. Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Or go to the emergency room of the nearest hospital.
- Take care of medical issues right away: Don’t let any new physical problems linger for too long either, without seeking treatment. The longer seniors wait, their mental well-being may be impacted too.
- Talk with your doctor: If seniors suspect that they may be experiencing a mental health problem, don’t hesitate to see their general practitioner. The doctor may start them on a course of treatment that will help them recover, or she may refer the senior to specialized professionals or local mental health services for the elderly and geriatric populations in the community.
- Get a second opinion: Some doctors have a hard time correctly diagnosing mental health conditions in seniors since their symptoms can be different than those of younger patients. Seniors also frequently have multiple medical conditions and take multiple medications, making diagnosing their mental health issues somewhat more complex. If so, try to find a professional who specializes in geriatric health care or geriatric psychiatry for a second opinion. One such practice is Northern Virginia Older Adult Counseling.
- Follow through on treatment: Someone’s age doesn’t have to be a barrier to getting better. Taking prescribed medications and attending therapy appointments make a difference in a senior’s mental well-being. In fact, seniors can recover from mental health issues just as successfully as younger people.
- Seek additional assistance: Sometimes, we need more support than our friends and family can offer. Thankfully, most communities have support groups and programs aimed at helping aging adults with various issues, including mental health. They can help seniors find other people to talk to who have been through similar situations. And many of them can provide free services to help in recovery. It’s also worth exploring various books about mental health, attending local workshops, and visiting the websites of trusted mental health organizations.
The CommunityVoice shares, “Mental wellness is every bit as important as an older adult’s physical wellness. Left untreated, psychological problems and brain disorders can interfere with their ability to enjoy life, maintain relationships, or even function on a day-to-day basis. Mental illness can also lead to physical illnesses and make it harder to heal from injuries or manage diseases they already have.”
We see mental health challenges with our clients. They can’t make best-care decisions when struggling with mental health issues either at home or in their senior living communities. We regularly refer clients to services within their community as part of the building scenarios for the Lifecare Affordability Plan.
Want to keep learning about improving mental health for older adults? Here are some additional resources.
- The State of Mental Health and Aging in America (CDC)
- Depression in Older Adults
- Resources for Older Adults (SAMHSA)
- Resources for Seniors (NAMI Virginia)
- Mental Health America
- Aging Well: Wellness And Psychosocial Treatment For The Emotional And Cognitive Challenges Of Aging
- Northern Virginia RAFT
- Phoebe Mental Health Services (Allentown, PA)
- What Older Adults Need to Know about Mental Health (Kendal at Home)
- 5th Annual Older Adult Mental Health Awareness Day Symposium
- Socially Connected, Mentally Strong (video from OT Christine Crawford, part of the Flip the Script Healthy Aging series from Virginia Hospital Center)
- Autonomy, Affiliation & Achievement: Older Adults’ Mental Health & Well-Being
- HelpGuide Aging Issues
What are the most common mental health issues in older adults?
According to the World Health Organization, about 15% of all adults over 60 experience a mental health problem. GreatSeniorLiving.com lists 8 mental health issues that frequently impact older adults, including depression, anxiety disorders, dementia, delirium, bipolar disorder, late-onset schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction. It’s important to remember that professionals consider none of these issues regular parts of aging. Read more in “Mental illness is NOT a normal part of aging.”
- Older adults have a heightened risk of depression, which makes this one of the most critical issues in geriatric mental health. People who are depressed tend to have a consistently low mood, and often, they don’t get enjoyment from activities they previously liked. They may also experience persistent feelings like anxiety, guilt, anger, shame, emptiness, worthlessness, irritability, or hopelessness. They may generally feel apathetic about life, leading to suicidal thoughts. In fact, according to the CDC, older men have the highest suicide rate of any demographic. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
- Many types of anxiety disorders Some of the most common types among seniors include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anxiety disorders may keep seniors from doing everyday activities, and their feelings can also worsen over time. That causes more and more interference in their daily lives. In many cases, people with anxiety disorders also have depression.
- Most people are aware of Alzheimer’s disease, but other forms of dementia Dementia causes a person’s memory to deteriorate and leads to other symptoms such as confusion, personality changes, erratic behavior, and communication difficulties. It can have a substantial impact on a person’s mental well-being.
- Delirium is a temporary mental condition experienced mainly by older people hospitalized for a separate medical issue. Symptoms include confusion, an inability to focus, a spike or rapid decrease in body movement, and sometimes severely impaired judgment.
- Older adults with bipolar disorder will have manic episodes during which they feel energized, elated, or generally “up,” and depressive episodes during which they feel sad, hopeless, or generally “down.” Seniors with this condition may have difficulty carrying out their daily activities.
- Late-onset schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis can manifest later in seniors. As a result, some older adults experience symptoms like delusions, sensory hallucinations, false beliefs, and paranoia, which can lead to increased isolation because of erratic and unusual social behavior.
- Seniors who have witnessed or survived a dangerous or shocking event can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Long after the event, they may continue to have “fight-or-flight” feelings, mainly when triggered by certain sights, sounds, smells, or situations. Even when they are safe at home, older adults can experience a host of symptoms from this challenging mental condition that makes it difficult to live everyday life.
- Some seniors have substance abuse problems or behavioral addictions that negatively impact their lives. Friends, family, or caregivers frequently overlook addiction among older adults. Even doctors sometimes fail to diagnose addiction in seniors since the symptoms can mirror other mental health conditions.