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May is Mental Health Month - Mental Health and Aging

Mental Health and Aging - Seniors Are a Woefully Underserved Group

by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. 5.5.24

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Attorney RJ Connelly III

"The month of May is dedicated to spreading awareness about mental health," stated professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "Mental illnesses are complex medical conditions that can significantly impair a person's cognitive, emotional, and social functioning. With appropriate treatment, most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms. In our blog today, we would like to focus on the mental health issues that affect older adults, a segment of the population that is often overlooked when discussing this issue."

An Overview of Seniors and Mental Health

As people age, they face many challenges that can significantly impact their physical and mental well-being. Chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, cancer, musculoskeletal diseases, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are some of the most significant contributors to the disease burden of older adults. Such diseases can impede the psychological well-being of older adults and heighten the risk of depression.

"Mental health issues are becoming increasingly prevalent among older adults," said Attorney Connelly. "Depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, dementia, and substance use disorder are some of the most common mental health conditions that older adults experience."

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According to research funded by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration), up to 25% of adults aged sixty-five and older experience mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. Depression and mood disorders are prevalent among this age group, affecting approximately 5% of seniors aged sixty-five and above. The number rises to 13.5% among those requiring nursing care or hospitalization. Anxiety disorders, which are often linked to depression or bipolar disorder, are diagnosed in almost 8% of adults aged sixty-five and above at some point in their lives. 

Dementia, a syndrome that causes cognitive impairment and mental health decline, is a prevalent mental health issue among seniors, affecting approximately 11% of seniors, with Alzheimer's disease being the most prevalent form. Substance use disorder is another mental health issue that is increasing among seniors and can lead to all the mental disorders mentioned above. 

Recent data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that a substantial proportion of older adults, approximately 2%, suffer from substance abuse disorders. Unfortunately, the true prevalence of this issue is likely underreported due to the stigma associated with it.

Seniors and Suicide

"Suicide is a significant issue that has a profound impact on many people, especially older adults," Attorney Connelly said. "According to the National Institutes of Health, the rates of suicide among this demographic are alarmingly high, with men aged eighty-five and above possessing the highest rate of any group within the country."

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Suicide among seniors is an ecalating issue

The reasons behind this increased vulnerability to suicide among older adults are multifaceted. One such reason is that older adults tend to plan their suicide attempts more meticulously and employ more lethal methods, thereby increasing the likelihood of a successful attempt. Further, older adults are less likely to be discovered and rescued, which further amplifies the chances of death. The physical fragility of older adults also plays a crucial role, as they are less likely to recover from an attempt.

"According to the CDC, common risk factors include but are not limited to depression, mental health problems, substance use disorders, physical illness, disability, pain, and social isolation," continued Attorney Connelly. "These factors can exacerbate feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and entrapment, leading individuals to believe that suicide is the only solution to their pain and suffering."

In contrast, protective factors constitute the conditions or attributes that promote resilience and reduce the likelihood of suicide. Protective factors include access to care for mental and physical health problems, social connectedness, adaptive coping strategies, and a sense of purpose and meaning in life. These factors can foster a positive outlook, enhance stress resilience, and facilitate help-seeking behaviors. By identifying and addressing risk factors and promoting protective factors, suicide prevention efforts can help reduce the incidence of suicide and save lives.

Signs to Be Aware of

Mental health is essential to overall well-being, and attention to the various symptoms that may indicate an underlying mental health condition is essential. The symptoms may include confusion, disorientation, or difficulty concentrating, which can interfere with daily activities and cause significant distress. A depressed mood lasting more than two weeks and feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or helplessness can also be indicative of a mental health condition. Similarly, thoughts of suicide or self-harm, memory loss, especially recent or short-term memory problems, social withdrawal or loss of interest in hobbies, and trouble handling finances or working with numbers require a consultation with a healthcare professional.

Physical Symptoms

There are physical signs that may suggest the presence of a mental health issue in a loved one. These signs include a disheveled appearance and poor hygiene, which may indicate that the person struggles to maintain daily routines and personal care. Changes in weight and appetite are also essential to note, as they may indicate that the person is experiencing anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions that affect their eating patterns. Further, difficulty in maintaining the home or yard can also be a sign of a mental health issue, as it may indicate a lack of energy, motivation, or interest in the person's surroundings.

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Symptoms to watch for

"It is also essential to pay attention to any irregular or abnormal physical symptoms your loved one may be experiencing, such as aches, constipation, or other unexplained physical changes," stated Attorney Connelly. "These symptoms can sometimes be a manifestation of underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. Additionally, watch out for unexplained fatigue, energy loss, or sleep changes, which may indicate a mental health issue is present."

If you notice these signs in your loved one, encourage them to seek professional help and support. Mental health conditions are treatable, and with proper care and treatment, your loved one can make a full recovery and lead a healthy, fulfilling life.

Available Treatments

Depression is a significant mental health concern among seniors, and the American Psychological Association (APA) recommends various psychotherapeutic interventions to address it. In severe cases, second-generation antidepressants may also be prescribed. Regarding a dementia diagnosis, several treatment alternatives are available that demonstrate promise in slowing the progression of the disease. These interventions may include lifestyle and behavior modifications and a range of therapies.

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Good mental health begins with self-care

For older adults with anxiety and substance use disorders, the most effective approach to mitigate and prevent these conditions is through similar methods. Additionally, depression has been shown to respond positively to many of the same interventions.

Consequently, preventing mental health disorders in seniors typically emphasizes healthy aging practices and treatment approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based interventions, physical exercise, and social support. It is also crucial to address any underlying medical conditions that may contribute to mental health concerns, such as chronic pain or sleep disorders.

A Final Word

"Mental Health Awareness Month aims to increase our understanding of mental health issues, reduce associated stigmas, and highlight the significance of emotional and psychological well-being," said Attorney Connelly. "Mental health and aging is an issue that we tend to underestimate as a society. This month's event presents an opportunity to educate ourselves, foster empathy, and advocate for improved access to mental health resources and care for our seniors. By doing so, we can establish a culture of acceptance and support by discussing mental health openly, promoting self-care strategies, and advocating for inclusivity and understanding."

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Please note that the information provided in this blog is not intended to and should not be construed as legal, financial, or medical advice. The content, materials, and information presented in this blog are solely for general informational purposes and may not be the most up-to-date information available regarding legal, financial, or medical matters. This blog may also contain links to other third-party websites that are included for the convenience of the reader or user. Please note that Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. does not necessarily recommend or endorse the contents of such third-party sites. If you have any particular legal matters, financial concerns, or medical issues, we strongly advise you to consult your attorney, professional fiduciary advisor, or medical provider.

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