More than 20% of people aged 55 and older have a mental health issue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And mental health conditions can negatively impact physical health as well. For example, having a disorder like depression adversely affects “the course and complicates the treatment of other chronic diseases,” the CDC reports. While physical health problems in the elderly population can be visible, their mental health status is harder to interpret, which makes it difficult to assess whether mental health problems are impacting their physical health and their ability to lead healthy lives.
Many members of the aging population benefit from support systems, such as relatives or close friends, who can help look after them and address their mental health concerns. But not every aging person has this kind of aid, nor do they all have the ability to access the necessary care or treatments for their health concerns. And with millions of aging baby boomers currently considering or entering retirement, that will only increase the need for effective mental health care and support.
For members of the aging population, as well as the health practitioners and families and friends who help care for and look after them, there are valuable mental health services for the elderly that can help these individuals continue to lead fulfilling lives.
Facts and statistics about the aging population and mental health
While cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s or dementia are frequently associated with the aging population, there are many other mental health conditions that afflict older people as well. Before learning about the elderly’s mental health services and resources, it’s important to understand the current state of mental health among the aging.
Mental health afflictions impacting the elderly population
- The total number of people with dementia worldwide is projected to increase to 82 million by 2030. [World Health Organization (WHO)]
Even with the advanced and rapidly evolving state of health care, the number of people in the world with dementia is still expected to grow even larger to 152 million by 2050. Because dementia is a cognitive loss disorder that affects thinking, memory and communication, this increase will likely have a large economic impact as medical facilities devote resources to treating these patients while families and friends search for ways of paying for or providing care.
According to the World Health Organization, there were 655 million individuals above age 65 worldwide in 2017. Close to 46 million of those individuals can face unipolar depression, a potentially debilitating mental health disorder.
- People aged 85-plus have the second-highest suicide rate of any age group. [American Foundation for Suicide Prevention]
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention noted that the suicide rate for individuals 85 years of age and older was 20.1 per 100,000 individuals. That’s just below the highest rate reported for those aged 45 to 54 at 20.2 per 100,000.
Access and availability of mental health resources for the aging
- Approximately 70% of older adults in the U.S. with prevalent mood and anxiety disorders did not use services. [Psychiatric Services]
- A study published in the journal Psychiatric Services showed that people generally did not seek out treatment for anxiety disorders, specific or social phobias, or mood disorders like bipolar disorder. While the participants did indicate a positive response toward mental health care, 30% noted that they would feel embarrassed to seek treatment for these conditions.
- Older black and Latino individuals were less likely to initiate mental health treatment than older white individuals. [Journal of the American Geriatrics Society]
In a report published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, an estimated 14.5% of black and 24.1% of Latino respondents initiated mental health care treatment, compared to an estimated 34.8% of white respondents. Additionally, both black and Latino participants faced higher mental health expenditures than white participants, while Latino participants also had a greater number of visits and lengthier episodes than black or white participants did.
Mental health resources for the aging population
Even for those with access to quality treatment who also have strong support systems in place, it can be difficult for elderly and aging individuals to receive the necessary care to address mental health issues. The following mental health resources for the elderly and aging can help these individuals take better care of themselves and improve their health.
Whether they have been diagnosed with a specific cognitive impairment or are having difficulty remembering things, older individuals can use techniques in their day-to-day lives to improve their memory. The Victoria State Government’s BetterHealth Channel suggests that older people actively pay attention to what they’re trying to remember, as well as use association techniques to remember specific things. For example, if an older person is trying to not forget the name of a new neighbor, they can associate that person with a specific image, like the neighbor’s new house.
While these tips are helpful, the American Psychological Association (APA) stresses that older individuals should consult a health practitioner to find out if there’s an underlying reason for their memory loss. “Also, ask to see a psychologist for a complete neuropsychological evaluation to rule out anxiety, depression or other psychological stresses and to test for cognitive changes,” the APA recommends.
Seek support groups
From financial troubles to dealing with the loss of a loved one, the aging population can face many trying events that cause stress, anxiety or unpleasant emotions. Additionally, these negative mental conditions can be caused by current physical ailments stemming from a disorder like heart disease or diabetes. While a health practitioner can help older individuals with specific treatment options, support groups can connect them with others facing similar ailments. Support groups can also benefit caregivers of older individuals, according to PBS.
Turn to technology
According to a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, there are a number of digital tools that older individuals can use to support their mental health. These include tracking their mood using apps and websites, playing music using technology to boost their mood and even playing games as a distraction from their current problems. “Learning new technology skills helps lessen isolation, gerontologists say, keeps the brain active with games like Lumosity and allows older people to monitor their own health more closely. A robust digital toolbox can even jump-start new careers,” writes Constance Gustke for The New York Times.
Exercise and keep a healthy diet
Because mental health is so closely connected with physical health, those in the aging population should also eat well and stay active. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases suggests eating nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, seafood and lean meats, and whole grains. Additionally, 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week, which can include a brisk walk or even heavy housework, can help older individuals stay healthy as they age. The National Council on Aging also highlights the importance of staying hydrated, advising: “Water is an important nutrient too! Don’t let yourself get dehydrated — drink small amounts of fluids consistently throughout the day. Tea, coffee and water are your best choices. Keep fluids with sugar and salt at a minimum, unless your doctor has suggested otherwise.”
Utilize hotlines and crisis lines
Regardless of age, it can be easier to notice a physical health condition than one that afflicts mental health. The lack of awareness or concern about one’s own mental health can stop older individuals from seeking treatment that could help alleviate their condition. It’s crucial that the aging population actively seek out the help of health practitioners and build strong support systems to assist them in times of trouble. If alone and facing an emotional or mental health crisis, older individuals and their friends and family can utilize the following resources.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline (800-662-4357, available 24 hours a day)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine (800-950-6264, available on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST)
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Crisis Line (800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day)
Mental health resources for caregivers of the aging population
From children learning how to take care of their aging parent to close friends of older individuals who want to learn how to better that person’s life, here are some suggestions for those looking to make a positive difference in the mental health of the aging population.
Engage in positive mental health activities with older individuals
Activities such as exercising regularly, volunteering and helping others, and pursuing hobbies can help improve the mental well-being of older individuals. These are all also things that friends and family can do with an elderly person to further encourage them and improve their health.“Older adults who reported taking part in social activities (such as playing games, belonging to social groups or traveling) or meaningful, productive activities (such as having a paid or unpaid job, or gardening) lived longer than people who did not. Researchers are further exploring this connection,” according to the National Institute on Aging.
Encourage older individuals to be open with their emotions
Anxiety, stress, irritability and forgetfulness are common symptoms seen in older individuals with mental health conditions. For friends and family who are caring for these people, it can be frustrating trying to deal with these behaviors, even though they’re often a product of the older person’s mental condition. Additionally, it can be difficult for loved ones to determine if an older person might be showing signs of a mental health condition if they do not talk about their emotions openly. Encouraging an older person to express what they’re feeling can help that person and their loved ones find a solution and overcome fear of their illness. For example, for older individuals who might be facing dementia, the BetterHealth Channel states that an older individual’s behavior “is out of the person’s control and they may be quite frightened by it. They need reassurance, even though it may often not appear that way.”
Help organize contact information and resources
Many of the mental health disorders that can afflict the growing population of aging persons can impact their memory and, in turn, their ability to take care of themselves. Preparing an easily accessible, in-plain-view list of necessary resources, instructions and contact information can help keep an older person on track with specific health tasks and procedures.
For those who may not have a family caregiver, Christina Ianzito of AARP suggests that older individuals consider where they’d like to grow older, organize necessary paperwork and seek out new resources and communities that could assist them as they age.
Ensuring that elderly individuals receive quality mental health care is a difficult task. But persons who are aging, as well as their friends and families, can prepare themselves for this challenge by utilizing the extensive resources available to them.