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Mental Health for Seniors: How to Identify Problems and Get Proper Care

Updated: Dec 21, 2020



Have you noticed that an older adult in your life is sleeping more than usual, seems angry and irritable, or is having suicidal thoughts? Did you know that these could be signs of a mental health problem?


According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), one in four older adults—about 7 million—are living with a mental disorder such as depression or anxiety. By 2030, NCOA expects the number to double to 15 million.


The sad fact is that two-thirds of older adults with mental disorders do not receive treatment for their conditions. Untreated mental disorders can lead to poor overall health, higher health care costs, disability or impairment, compromised quality of life, increased caregiver stress, a higher risk of suicide, and death.


For these reasons, it’s important to recognize the warning signs and risk factors associated with depression and anxiety—and know how to get treatment for your aging loved one.


Depression in Seniors

The most prevalent mental disorder among seniors is depression, according to a brief released by the Healthy Aging Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors (NACDD). Depression in seniors can lead to health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, and the condition can make it difficult for the sufferer to seek treatment.


Warning Signs and Risk Factors of Depression in Seniors

As a caregiver, it’s important to know the signs and risk factors of depression to ensure that the senior in your life receives treatment as quickly as possible. As with most mental health disorders, depression has numerous symptoms. Some seniors may only experience a few symptoms, while others may show signs of several.


The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) lists the most common warning signs of depression in seniors as:


  • Persistent Sad, Anxious, or “Empty” Mood

  • Feelings of Hopelessness or Pessimism

  • Irritability

  • Feelings of Guilt, Worthlessness, or Helplessness

  • Loss of Interest or Pleasure in Hobbies and Activities

  • Decreased Energy or Fatigue

  • Moving or Talking More Slowly

  • Feeling Restless or Having Trouble Sitting Still

  • Difficulty Concentrating, Remembering, or Making Decisions

  • Difficulty Sleeping, Waking Early in the Morning, or Oversleeping

  • Changes in Appetite

  • Changes in Weight

  • Thoughts of Death or Suicide

  • Suicide Attempts

  • Aches or Pains, Headaches, Cramps, or Digestive problems—Without a Distinct Physical Cause


Do you think an older adult in your life for is suffering from depression? If they have experienced any of these symptoms for a majority of the days over a two-week period, their health care provider should screen them for depression.


In addition to the warning signs, there are a few risk factors associated with depression in seniors. These include:


  • A Personal or Family History of Depression

  • Major Life Changes, Stress, or Trauma

  • Certain Physical Illnesses and Medications


Anxiety in Seniors

Anxiety is another prevalent mental health condition for seniors, and it often is associated with depression. In fact, nearly half of older adults who are diagnosed with depression also experience anxiety, according to the CDC and NACDD brief.


Warning Signs and Risk Factors of Anxiety in Seniors

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is the most common type of anxiety. Seniors with GAD are typically over-anxious and worrisome for a majority of days for at least six months. From personal health and everyday routines to work and socialization, GAD can affect nearly every aspect of a senior’s life.


Like depression, there are numerous warning signs when it comes to anxiety. According to the NIMH, caregivers should be aware of the following signs and symptoms of GAD in seniors:


  • Feeling Restless, Overly Excited, or On-Edge

  • Being Easily Fatigued

  • Having Difficulty Concentrating

  • Mind Going Blank

  • Irritability

  • Experiencing Muscle Tension

  • Difficulty Controlling Feelings of Worry

  • Having Sleep Problems (Difficulty Falling or Staying Asleep, Restlessness, or Unsatisfying Sleep)


Besides these signs and symptoms, chronic health problems such as thyroid conditions or heart arrhythmias can lead to or increase anxiety symptoms. Drinking caffeinated beverages, substance abuse, and certain medications can also cause anxiety.


According to the NIMH, research has shown that genetics and environmental factors can increase the risk of developing anxiety. A few of the common risk factors associated with anxiety disorders are:


  • Shyness During Childhood

  • Exposure to Stressful or Negative Life or Environmental Events

  • A Family History of Anxiety or Other Mental Illnesses


Treating Depression and Anxiety in Seniors

The typical treatments for both depression and anxiety in seniors include medication and psychotherapy—or a combination of both. Caregivers need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of each condition since treatments are generally more effective when they begin during the early stage of either condition.


Whether you’re a caregiver in a long-term care facility, assisted living facility, or a home health care provider, several activities can help promote the mental health and wellbeing of seniors. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recommends enhancing your caregiving routine with the following types of activities:


  • Healthy Activities: Walking, exercise classes, interactive games, gardening, relaxation classes, yoga, Quigong, or Tai Chi.

  • Intellectual Activities: Reading books, discussing current events, crossword puzzles, card games, chess, or strategy games.

  • Artistic Activities: Arts and crafts, creative writing, music, drama, and dance.

  • Skill-Building Activities: Classes to learn about computers, cooking, sewing, carpentry, gardening, finances, or grandparenting.

  • Spiritual Activities: Attending religious services or prayer groups, celebrating religious holidays, or meditation classes.

  • Volunteer and Mentoring Activities: Intergenerational activities with children, teens, and young adults.

  • Coping Activities: Classes on loss and bereavement, caring for a spouse, problem-solving, or socialization.


If you’re an older adult living with depression, anxiety, or another mental health disorder, there are a number of things you can do to while you’re being treated for your condition to help improve your quality of life:


  • Be Active and Exercise Regularly

  • Set Realistic Goals

  • Spend Time with Friends or Family

  • Don’t Isolate Yourself—Reach Out for Help

  • Know That Your Mood Will Improve Over Time—Not Right Away

  • Postpone Major Life Changes (Getting Married or Divorced, Changings Jobs, Etc.)

  • Discuss Major Decisions with a Trusted Relative, Friend, or Your Caregiver

  • Educate Yourself About Your Condition

Author: Community Home Health Care

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