Sherry has been worried for some time about her father, Malcolm. He’s been sleeping in more lately, and his daily walks have gone by the wayside. When she asks if he’s all right, he shrugs off the topic and focuses on the television again. He doesn’t seem to remember things as well as he used to, but Sherry wonders if this is just a sign of aging. Her friends tell her it sounds like dementia.
Well…hmmm. It could be dementia, but it could also be a host of other conditions that can only be diagnosed by a qualified physician. If you read my post about the three Ds every caregiver should know (dementia, depression, and delirium), you’re aware that Malcolm is not necessarily demented.
In fact, his symptoms sound more like depression – but sadly, mental health challenges are often overlooked in the older population. It seems that we think psychological problems are a non-issue among elders or that the only one they deal with is dementia. The irony in the latter assumption is that dementia is actually a medical (more specifically, neurological) condition as opposed to a mental health problem.
Older adults absolutely experience mental health conditions – most commonly depression and anxiety. According to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, upwards of 8 million older adults experience mental health or substance abuse problems, yet a small fraction of these folks are receiving any treatment.
Why? As always, the problem is complex. Part of it lies in the fallacy of seeing psychological symptoms as a normal part of aging (and older adults hold this view as well as younger adults). If you’re a caregiver, please know that signs of depression, anxiety, and related conditions are not simply what are expected in old age. Seeking an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment is just as important for older people as it is for younger mental health clients.
Also, I think our society holds an insidious assumption that older adults can’t benefit from counseling or psychotherapy. We are quick to assume that elders cannot grow, change, and continue to develop on psychological and spiritual levels because they are set in their ways. This is purely nonsense. Social science research has demonstrated that older people continue to learn, develop, and recreate themselves throughout their life span. It follows that counseling and psychotherapy can serve as enriching interventions for elders who are either in a temporary rough patch or who have been struggling emotionally for some time.
If you want to learn more about how therapy can help older people, check out these audio clips featured on The New York Times website. You’ll hear from elders who courageously and eloquently speak about how therapy has helped them process difficult events, learn new skills, and find meaning in their later years.
If you’re a caregiver and you suspect that your older family member is experiencing depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition, please don’t look the other way. Getting your loved one some help could mean the difference between silent suffering and an enriched, meaningful experience in old age.
Bartels, S. J., & Naslund, J. A. (2013). The underside of the silver tsunami: Older adults and mental health care. The New England Journal of Medicine, Advance Online Access. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1211456