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Taking a Look at Mental Health Care for Seniors

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Older adults experience the same mental health concerns as their younger counterparts, but face a number of unique barriers to seeking and receiving treatment.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 15% of adults aged 60 and older have a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. With a projected doubling of the world’s population of older adults over the course of the next 30 years, it’s critical that time and resources are dedicated to creating a foundation for a healthier aging population.

It can be difficult for older adults to receive the mental health care that they need. Some of the most debilitating barriers include:

The Physical Manifestation of Symptoms: Mental health conditions in older adults are significantly underreported, underdiagnosed, and undertreated. For a time doctors incorrectly believed that the prevalence of anxiety decreased with age because of this discrepancy. However, the issue may lie in the fact that older adults tend to seek help for the physical symptoms of these mental health issues, rather than the emotional ones. Because they are reacting to the physical symptoms, they tend to seek help from their Primary Care Physician (PCP) rather than a mental health professional. By educating health professionals, and instituting a mental health screening or exam, doctors may be better able to diagnose a mental health condition before it becomes serious.

Normalization of Negative Emotions Associated with Aging: Older adults face an array of increasingly complex mental and physical issues, leading to a generalization that poor health and sadness due to a loss of mobility, friends and loved ones, and independence is normal for this population. Depression, anxiety, and other diagnosable mental health conditions, however, are never a normal response to life’s circumstances. Education for seniors and their loved ones about normal and abnormal reactions to stress and loss is critical and can go a long way towards boosting senior health and wellness.

Increasing Health Concerns and Limitations: Comedian Louis C.K. performs a bit about going to the doctor at 40 vs. 20 saying, “If you're 20 and you have a bad shoulder, the doctor will reconstruct your shoulder through miracles of modern science. But when you’re 40 and you go to the doctor they just go, ‘Yeah, that starts to happen.’” While the joke gets a lot of laughs from a middle age perspective, the reality is a tough one for many older adults who face increasing odds of chronic disease. The link between chronic disease and depression is a strong one. In a 2009 study of patients with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 22% were found to have at least mild depression.

An increased awareness about the mental health issues facing older adults, and systematic changes to view senior health in a more holistic light can go a long way to improve the lives of and wellbeing of the world’s older adult population.


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