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Caregiver Training Blog

Mental Illness in Seniors: Are they suffering in silence?

elderly woman“Despite great strides in our understanding of mental illness and vast improvements in the dialogue surrounding it, too many still suffer in silence.” This is the very first sentence in this year’s Presidential Proclamation for National Mental Health Awareness Month.  As America’s population ages, the need for mental and behavioral health services continues to grow.  Unfortunately there are many myths about aging and mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression being normal signs of aging.  Too often such generalized statements are the cause of older adults being under diagnosed or overlooked for problems that are very treatable.  However, even the normal physical and emotional stresses that go along with aging can be risk factors for mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. 

The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation lists a number of potential triggers for mental illness in the elderly:

  • Physical disability
  • Long-term illness (e.g., heart disease or cancer)
  • Dementia-causing illness (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease)
  • Change of environment, like moving into assisted living
  • Illness or loss of a loved one
  • Medication interactions
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Poor diet or malnutrition

With the stigma associated around mental illness and the many physiological and emotional changes associated with aging, it’s logical to understand why older adults as well as their families hesitate to seek help if there is any reason to believe it to be an issue.  Nonetheless, caregivers especially should keep an eye out for some of the following warning signs, which could indicate a mental health concern:

The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation suggests that among things to look out for are:

  • Sad or depressed mood lasting longer than two weeks
  • Social withdrawal; loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable
  • Feelings of worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, helplessness; thoughts of suicide
  • Confusion, disorientation, problems with concentration or decision-making
  • Trouble handling finances or working with numbers

Consulting with a family doctor, a psychologist or a geriatric psychiatrist is a great way to begin understanding why this may be happening.  Don’t hesitate to seek help for yourself or your loved ones; the sooner you know, the more that can be done to treat it appropriately.  No one should suffer in silence!

For more information about depression and elders and mental illness in older adults, mmLearn.org offers the following: 

Behavior Problems:  Dementia and Mental Illness in Long Term Care and Assisted Living
Presented by Dr. David A. Smith, M.D., FAAFP, CMD
This four-part series covers the epidemiology, causes, effects, teams process and drug and non-drug therapy relating to behavior problems in Long Term Care.

Depression in Elders - Presented by Dr. Jason Schillerstrom
A discussion on how depression is diagnosed, screening questions for depression and causes, outcomes and treatments.

Elders and Depression - Dr. Thomas Weiss
This video provides an overview of signs, symptoms and treatment of depression in older adults.