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Mental Illness in Seniors

Mental illness in seniors

Behavioral health is different at each stage of life. Unfortunately, symptoms of mental illness in older adults are often considered normal signs of aging, preventing them from getting the support they need and deserve.  At Palms Behavioral Health in Harlingen, Texas, we routinely treat mental health concerns in seniors. We want senior citizens and their caregivers to know what to look for and when to seek out help for mental illness.

The Most Common Diagnoses Mental Illness in Seniors

One in four seniors struggles with mental illness, but fewer than half of them receive treatment. Mislabeling mental health symptoms as normal signs of aging, stigma, financial cost, transportation issues, and lack of practitioners who specialize in treating seniors are all barriers. Among older adults, the mental health concerns that occur most often are:

Contributing Factors

There isn’t just one thing that leads to elderly people experiencing mental illness. Often, there are several factors at play, which frequently include:

  • Physical ailments
    • High blood pressure
    • Obesity
    • Heart disease
    • Weakened immune system
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Cognitive decline
  • Decreased mobility
  • Loss of loved ones
  • Elder abuse

Myths About Mental Health in Older Adults

People tend to have misconceptions about senior mental health that interfere with their ability to recognize when the elderly are experiencing mental illness. For example:

  • Dementia is a normal part of the aging process –  FALSE. In reality, most older adults do not experience the level of memory and skill loss associated with dementia.
  • It’s normal for older people to be frail and ill FALSE. Many seniors have good physical health, and those who do not may experience distress because of their ailments.
  • Senior citizens are too flexible and stubborn to develop the new skills they would need to manage their mental health FALSE. Many older adults are willing and able to grow and learn new ways to manage their mental health.

Signs of Mental Illness in Seniors

The symptoms of mental illness vary between diagnoses, but some of the most common indicators of trouble include:

  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • High levels of stress or worry
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Lack of positive emotions
  • Unusual ideas or emotions
  • Increased substance use
  • Anger or irritability

How You Can Help: Mental Illness in Seniors

It can be difficult to know how to help an older person who is showing signs of mental distress, but loved ones can take a few easy steps to get their elderly friend or family member into treatment:

  • Ask questions and listen attentively:
    • How are you feeling?
    • Is anything making you feel sad or anxious?
    • Are you feeling more tired or stressed than usual?
  • Involve a pharmacist – reviewing your loved one’s medications with a geriatric pharmacist, who specializes in helping older adults, may help you to identify medications that could be contributing to fatigue or other problems.
  • Talk to their doctor – join your loved one at their next medical appointment and ensure that their doctor has a comprehensive medical history and up-to-date list of medications. Share your observations of changes that seem to be occurring. Advocate for your friend or family member to receive tests or specialist referrals as needed. The symptoms of mental health and medical conditions sometimes overlap, so medical causes for their symptoms should be ruled out.
  • Get an evaluation – if there is no medical cause found for your loved one’s symptoms, help them to locate mental health services that specialize in treating older adults.

Responding to Suicidal Thoughts

In 2022, nearly 50,000 Americans took their own lives. The largest increase in suicides was among adults over the age of 65. In 2021, Texas had the highest number of suicide deaths of any state. Though it may be uncomfortable to discuss suicide with your older loved ones, it is important to know what to do if your loved one is struggling with suicidal thoughts:

  • Ask about suicidal thoughts.
  • If the person discloses a plan to end their life, help them stay safe by removing their access to items they plan to use to kill themselves.
  • Stay with the person or arrange for someone to stay with them until they can be safe.
  • Connect them to help – Calling or texting 988 will connect you to the Crisis Lifeline, where a trained crisis counselor will help you or your loved one find ways to stay safe and get help.
  • Follow up after the crisis has passed to see how your friend or family member is coping.
  • If your loved one is not able to stay safe, call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room.

At Palms Behavioral Health, we offer inpatient and outpatient services for adults over age 55, including individual, group and family therapy. We also offer family and caregiver education, as well as medication management. We are here to help you and your loved one navigate mental health struggles that may arise at any stage of life.

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