Sorting Out Mental Health Concerns for the Aging

If you are a caregiver of an elderly loved one, perhaps you have wondered about the changes in behavior and personality you see in them. Are they suffering from a mental health issue, or are they just getting old? This question is very common among families with elderly persons. At least 20 percent of senior adults have a mental health issue, but only one-third of those persons have received appropriate treatment to address their issue. The problem may be that mental health symptoms may be confused with dementia or “just getting old.” Here is a look at some mental health symptoms that may be confused with something else.


Risk Factors for Mental Health Issues


Seniors dealing with life changes in health, mobility, and relationships have a high level of risk factors which can predispose them to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Risk factors for mental health issues include contracting a life changing illness such as cancer or a physical disability that limits independence and activity. Having a poor diet because of the inability to get groceries on a regular basis lowers the nutrient support to the brain. Unintended medication interactions, as well as alcohol or substance abuse, can also result in mental health issues.


A change from a longtime residence into a new unfamiliar environment such as an assisted living apartment can be a trigger for depression or anxiety. The illness or death of a partner or spouse can trigger either a short term or long term depression in the healthier member of the pair. The biggest obstacle to detection and treatment of mental health issues is the fact seniors tend to not talk about their feelings and may discount them as the usual course of aging.




Sadly, depression is very common among the elderly, and the problem is compounded by the fact that it often goes untreated. Seniors who cannot get the help they need to stay as independent as possible while remaining safe are especially at risk. Some symptoms of depression include an increase or decrease in appetite along with the corresponding weight change, or changes in sleep patterns followed by fatigue.


A persistent sadness and social withdrawal that lasts longer than two weeks is another red flag for depression. Symptoms of depression that are often confused for dementia include confusion, problems making decisions, and difficulty with short-term memory.




Anxiety is another very common mental health issue among the elderly, and in many cases, it may pair up with depression. Anxiety may be extremely generalized or can be expressed in focused ways such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.


Not just a mental health issue that has someone say “I am worried about…”, anxiety can be expressed in some not so obvious ways. An anxiety-ridden individual may express inordinate guilt about something very minor or state feelings of worthlessness. If anxiety dominates an individual’s life it will be hard for him or her to concentrate on details like keeping the bills paid, maintaining proper hygiene, or keeping the house maintained. Even if someone does overtly express anxiety, physical distress such as headaches and constipation without a medical cause is a tip off a person is suffering from anxiety.


Seek Help


It is up to caregivers to be advocates for their elderly loved ones to get them the help they need. With the assistance of an elder care specialist, assess the social, emotional, and physical health of the elder. One of the steps that can be taken is an assessment of the elder by a mental health worker with a masters in gerontology to ascertain if there are any mental health concerns. Primary physicians who work with the elderly should be able to give you referrals to qualified practitioners. The most important step to take is to get help for your loved one who begins to exhibit symptoms of mental health issues.



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