Golden Minds: Navigating Mental Health Concerns During the Senior Years

There has been a lot of conversation about mental health in recent years, helped by celebrities and public speakers telling their stories. Nevertheless, still, too many seniors buy into the stigma that mental health issues somehow represent personal failure or weakness. This can generate feelings of shame and prevent asking for assistance. Denying that there is a problem and not seeking help only makes matters worse. May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, a good time to be aware of this stigma and recognize the need for elderly mental wellness. Many seniors ignore treatable problems due to old attitudes about mind-body health.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cognitive disorder among older adults, affecting more than 6.5 million Americans. But seniors are also at risk of developing anxiety and depression due to social isolation. The incidence rises when individuals become chronically ill, require home health or home care, or reside in nursing homes. While these and other mental health issues are reported in the senior population, it is important to note that mental illness is not a natural part of aging but a result of some physiological process and/or emotional imbalance.

Communication Is Key

Elderly individuals who experience mental illness may elect not to seek professional help for a variety of reasons, including the stigma they attach to it, lack of health insurance covering treatment, and limited access to services. Another factor that may prevent someone from seeking care is not recognizing certain physical and mood changes as symptoms.

Not reporting changes that affect daily life and not conferring with your primary care physician or a mental health specialist can delay crucial relief for potentially serious, even life-threatening illnesses. Open, honest communication about changes in how you feel or behave or what you think about is the only proactive way to arrive at a true diagnosis and effective treatment plan. The more specific and transparent you can be as a patient, the better your chances of getting the help you need.

Disclosing symptoms to your physician is a start. But unless your doctor takes time to ask probing questions and unless you are a strong advocate of your own health, there’s the risk of being prescribed pharmaceuticals that may not get to the root cause of the problem. Mind-body health is related and often requires integrated testing and treatment between medical doctors and psychiatric professionals.

Warning Signs

Getting help starts with recognition. A red flag that you or a loved one may be experiencing mental illness or an underlying physical condition is if any one or combination of the following persists:

  • Pronounced changes in mood, energy, appetite
  • Feeling flat, down or just unable to register positive thoughts, emotions or sense of joy
  • Interrupted sleep or oversleeping
  • Distracted thinking; trouble focusing; feeling restless, on edge; easily upset
  • Chronic worry, dwelling on negative thoughts, feeling stressed
  • Anger, irritability, aggressiveness, sudden outbursts
  • Lingering headaches, digestive issues, pain
  • Using alcohol, drugs, porn, sex and engaging in other high-risk activities despite the threat of health, relationship or legal consequence
  • Persistent sadness or hopelessness
  • Suicidal ideation or thoughts of harming one’s self or others
  • Obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors that interfere with work, family, social life
  • Acting out despite expressed concerns or interventions by friends, family, authorities
  • Seeing, hearing, feeling things that others do not

Things To Keep in Mind and Actions To Take

Know that having one or more of these warning signs does not mean by itself you have a mental illness. That can only be determined by medical, psychiatric and/or psychological assessments. The point is not to assume or play doctor yourself but to get checked out by professionals who can rule out certain things or address others as the situation dictates.

The other thing to remember is that even if a mental illness is diagnosed, it doesn’t mean you are crazy or bad or at fault. It just means you are human and in need of care. Don’t let pride or ignorance stand in the way of getting help. Chances are, the longer you wait, the more severe the problem will become, and the more the quality of your health and life will be affected.

If you suspect that a senior in your life may be experiencing mental illness, speak to them or to someone they trust, including their physician or a clergy member, and urge the senior to get help.

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