National Mental Health Month | Raising Awareness For Older Adults

May Is National Mental Health Month

Mental Health America, a nonprofit advocacy organization, founded National Mental Health Week in 1949, but in the 1960s, it became National Mental Health Month. 

Communities and groups across the country organize events throughout the month to promote awareness about the importance of mental health, as well as raise money to support various research and treatment initiatives. 

Mental health is a serious problem for many Americans, but unfortunately, many frequently forget about older adults.

A significant portion of the country’s aging population suffers from depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts. For this reason, meeting their needs necessitates special attention and training from caregivers, family members, and mental health professionals. 

The changes that aging brings can be challenging. However, concentrating on healthy aging — both physically and mentally — during May and the rest of the year can make it easier.

Mental Health Month: Recognizing Seniors’ Unique Needs

Source: Island Health

Not only is May National Older Americans Month, but it is also National Mental Health Month. 

In 2012, research conducted by the Institute of Medicine revealed that about one in five seniors struggled with a form of mental illness, substance abuse, or a combination of the two.

By 2030, an estimated 75 million Americans will be older than 65. Under those circumstances, if the figures shown by the Institute of Medicine’s research persist until 2030, the number of older adults facing mental illness or substance abuse will reach  15 million.

So as the number of older adults in the US continues to increase, addressing the challenges to this population’s mental health will become more critical.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that 5.7 million seniors aged 65 and above reported binge drinking at least once a month, and 1.5 million admitted using illegal drugs in a 2017 survey. 

According to the CDC, more than 7,000 elders died from opioid overdoes in 2016.

A growing population of more older adults suffering from mental health and substance abuse disorders is likely to have a devastating effect on the country’s health and wellbeing. 

But on a personal level, the figures show that these problems will personally impact someone we know.

Organizations like SAMHSA, the National Coalition on Mental Health and Aging, and the Administration on Aging/Administration for Community Living promote events to raise awareness about evidence-based methods that support older adults’ unique mental health needs.

Eliminating Misconceptions About Aging And Mental Health

National Mental Health Month is a good time for older adults and their loved ones to talk about mental health. Equally important, it’s essential to recognize that their experiences might be something more than merely growing old.

mental-health-month-an-elderly-woman-resting-her-head-in-her-hand-with-her-worried-husband-standing-behind-her
Source: Stettler Independent

Nearly 20% of seniors 65 and older face some type of mental health issue, including depression, anxiety, or dementia. 

There are many general misconceptions about aging and mental health, including that specific mental health problems just occur with age.

However, that belief can negatively affect older adults’ health. Studies show that elders with symptoms of a mental health problem are less inclined to get help, whether from their doctor or mental health professional. 

Those who do look for help frequently report feeling more at ease discussing their mental health with their long-time physician, rather than a therapist who is new to them. In 2017, about 15.6 million adults 50 and older sought mental health services in 2017. 

Common Mental Health Problems For Seniors

Risk Factors

Risk factors for mental health problems can occur at every age. While seniors may encounter everyday forms of stress like everyone else, they can also experience stresses that occur more frequently with aging. 

These stressors can increase their chance of developing a mental illness or worsening an existing one.

Source: Port St. Lucie Hospital, Inc.

Common risk factors include:

  • Mobility loss
  • Chronic pain
  • Fragility 
  • Other health issues that necessitate long-term care
  • Bereavement
  • Reduced income

These can all culminate in isolation, loneliness, or manifest as a form of psychological distress that may call for prolonged care.

Mental health and physical wellbeing correlate. Consequently, seniors must monitor both carefully to maintain their quality of life and longevity.

Elder abuse is another factor that can leave a lasting psychological impact. Recent studies found that one in six seniors suffer from a form of elder abuse. 

Abuse can be abandonment, physical, verbal, mental, financially manipulative, or sexual, but all of it diminishes the elder’s dignity and self-worth and severely impacts mental health.

Depression

Depression in the elderly can frequently go unnoticed or mistaken for a side effect of a physical condition such as a stroke, heart surgery, or cancer. 

Source: Patient Plus

Older adults may be reluctant to talk about depression if they previously considered it a sign of weakness. Alternatively, they may purposefully ignore the symptoms if their insurance doesn’t cover treatment for mental health.

Depression frequently appears in combination with other health concerns such as diabetes or heart disease. 

Untreated depression, no matter how moderate, can weaken seniors’ immune systems and make it harder to recover.

Sometimes, many misconstrue the signs of depression for grief, especially for those experiencing loss or diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Signs of depression include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Trouble focusing or remembering details
  • Problems with appetite, such as overeating or losing interest in food
  • Thoughts or attempts of suicide
  • Sleep problems, consistent feelings of fatigue, or sleeping too much
  • Headaches, body aches, digestive cramps

The side effects of some medications can imitate signs of depression, but some prescriptions could cause it. 

Medicine for steroids, hormones, arthritis, and high blood pressure can all cause depressive symptoms.

Since many elders take several medications, it can be easy for depression to go unnoticed or misdiagnosed.

Specialists usually prescribe antidepressants to treat this problem. However, they often have side effects like nausea, headaches, and restlessness.

Alternatively, psychotherapy is a relatively new treatment option that discusses how the patient’s depression could stem from habitual patterns of behavior. 

Anxiety

mental-health-month-pensive-senior-woman-sitting-on-the-couch
Source: AARP

A common misconception that many held — including those in the medical and mental health field — was that anxiety went away as people aged or was just a regular aspect of aging. 

However, it is now widely accepted that anxiety is just as likely to occur in older adults as other populations. 

For seniors, mourning the loss of a loved one, dealing with chronic pain or disease, or medication can trigger anxiety. Therefore, they should not disregard these feelings as a normal part of aging. 

There are several anxiety disorders that elders can develop:

  • Generalized anxiety: Excessive worry for routine life events and situations
  • Panic attacks: Episodes of fear that occur randomly and may seem abrupt and irrational
  • Acute stress: Typically accompanies an emotionally upsetting experience or severe trauma 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): When acute stress disorder lasts longer than one month
  • Phobias: Irrational fears about different things or circumstances

The most common methods for treating anxiety involve a mixture of talk therapy and medications. 

Dementia

Dementia is not a normal part of aging. The WHO estimates that nearly dementia affects 50 million people globally — and about 60% live in low- or middle-income nations.

Additionally, predictions estimate that number to rise to 82 million people by 2030 and 152 million by 2050.

Dementia brings a host of critical social and financial concerns, from treatment to the social cost. Furthermore, this disease leaves severe physical, emotional, and economic strain on loved ones and caregivers.

Suicide

Failing to diagnose older adults with depression correctly can have devastating consequences. Unrecognized or untreated depression is the most common cause of senior suicide.

According to the CDC, over 18% of suicides in 2013 were elders 85 and older, which is a startling percentage because older adults account for 13% of the country’s population.

Source: Barchester Mental Health

Furthermore, these figures are why greater awareness and funding for mental health for seniors is so critical and should extend beyond National Mental Health Month.

Signs of suicide include:

  • Withdrawing from other people, including loved ones and friends
  • Constant and conspicuous sadness or depression
  • Continuous feelings of despair, powerlessness, or being trapped
  • Significant mood and personality changes
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or interests
  • Careless or impulsive behaviors
  • Variations in sleeping habits or appetite
  • Making a will and giving away favored belongings

Those who know someone exhibiting these signs should actively encourage them to seek professional help and find a support group made up of peers. 

The Cost Of Treatment

Many seniors would decline mental health services because of the out-of-pocket costs, especially if they lived on a fixed or low income. 

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 compels insurance companies to offer coverage for mental health services at or around a similar cost of physical insurance. In light of this, seniors’ access to mental health treatment should improve.

While Medicare doesn’t extend to treatments from medical professionals like licensed counselors, coverage can include services from:

  • Psychiatrists
  • clinical psychologists
  • psychiatric specialists
  • Social workers
  • Group therapy
  • Patient education
mental-health-month-a-senior-couple-talking-over-their-options-with-a-financial-advisor-at-home
Source: Supportive Care Matters

Provided a specialist writes off treatment as medically necessary, Medicare should cover any additional expenses. 

Medicare Part B might contain local medical review policies, or local coverage determinations, which may exempt some services from coverage even when considered medically necessary. 

If the insurance company denies coverage, older adults can contest their claim provided a clinician has confirmed that the issue at hand calls for definitive treatments. 

Some elders may be financially eligible to receive coverage from Medicaid, which includes out-of-network providers, co-pays, out-of-pocket costs, and coinsurance.

Although Medicaid now covers a broader variety of services and costs, different states have different rules concerning coverage.

Those insured by the Alternative Benefits Plan should find coverage for mental health treatment.

Promoting Health And Wellness During Mental Health Month

Communities should work together to protect seniors’ mental health and wellbeing through programs geared toward improving access to mental health services for elders. 

Additionally, forming home environments and other conditions that facilitate a healthy lifestyle can go a long way. According to the WHO, a framework with the resources to meet seniors’ unique needs should have:

  • Security and freedom
  • Adequate housing
  • Social support for seniors and caregivers
  • Health, community, and social programs aimed at those who live alone or in rural areas or experience chronic illnesses
  • Programs to curtail elder abuse

Meetcaregivers

Mental health concerns in elderly loved ones present many unique challenges, especially if you aren’t around to support them as much as you’d like.

If your loved one regularly forgets to take their medicine, needs transportation assistance to appointments, or just needs help with routine tasks, consider hiring a caregiver.

MeetCaregivers has many qualified in-home care workers who can meet your loved one’s needs.

We will work with you to find the right match and ensure peace of mind so you can focus on helping your loved one get better.

Call us (888) 541-1136 or send us online.

For more, check out the Blog for senior living posts and other resources.

Sources
  • “Bringing Awareness to the Mental Health of Older Adults.” SAMHSA Blog, 20 May 2019, https://tinyurl.com/y7cge4qh
  • Care Coordination. “National Mental Health Month: Addressing Seniors’ Emotional Well-Being: Philips Lifeline ®.” Philips Lifeline, 21 May 2015, https://tinyurl.com/y8tez8jx.
  • “Mental Health of Older Adults.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 12 Dec. 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ybe6h7ho.

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