Growing older comes with its physical challenges and its mental challenges. The mental health of the elderly is of growing concern in the Unites States as more and more Boomers reach senior citizen status. Alzheimer’s, dementia, depression, anxiety, and alcohol and drug misuse are among the leading causes of mental illness. Diagnosing and treating these illnesses can greatly improve the quality of life of the seniors who suffer from these debilitating conditions.
Alcohol and Drug Misuse
According to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, nearly one in five older Americans engages in alcohol and/or drug misuse, and this number is increasing. Drug and alcohol misuse can cause physical and mental problems and illnesses, some of which can be avoided when the patient is made aware of the connection and receives help. Some believe their illnesses are exclusively associated with getting old, when in fact it is the substance misuse that is causing the problems.
So what is misuse? Medication misuse is simply taking the medication in a way that is different from or in conflict with the doctor’s or pharmacist’s instructions. This can include mixing medications with alcohol. It can also include taking too much or too little of the prescribed amount of medication, or taking the medication too often, or not often enough.
As we age, our bodies change, and those changes can create reactions to medications and alcohol that may catch us by surprise. Always check with your doctor (or your elderly loved one’s doctor) if you are not feeling well and you are taking more than one medication and/or are drinking alcohol on a regular basis.
Anxiety is a feeling of dread, worry, or fear that is disproportionately large compared to the situation that brought about the feelings. Anxiety can be debilitating, causing physical and mental health problems in the elderly and severely diminishing the sufferer’s quality of life. According to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2010, it is believed that anxiety affects between 10-20% of the older population, a problem that has gone largely unnoticed in years past.
A number of things can cause an anxiety disorder, including a genetic predisposition, substance abuse, loss of a loved one, extreme stress, a fall that is now causing a fear of falling again, or Alzheimer’s/dementia. If your loved one seems excessively fearful, weak, shaky, anti-social, depressed, or exhausted, these may be signs that he or she is suffering from an anxiety disorder. Drug and alcohol abuse often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety, as well as depression.
If you suspect your loved one has an anxiety disorder, consult with his or her doctor. The physician can determine whether or not the cause of the anxiety is physical or mental, and can devise a treatment plan with a mental health professional if needed.
For more information, check out the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), Older Adults page.
Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Dementia is a condition that causes a person to suffer from a loss of mental and memory functioning. Alzheimer’s is a disease that causes dementia. Having bouts of forgetfulness is a normal part of aging, but when it starts to interfere with normal daily activities, it is important to see a physician.
If you are noticing frequent memory lapses, confusion and disorientation even in familiar surroundings, and personality changes, such as depression or anxiety, now is the time to get your loved one to the doctor. Early detection will not cure or prevent the disease from developing further, but early treatment can help alleviate some of the symptoms and provide a better life for the patient.
Age and family history are the main risk factors for Alzheimer’s, but there is still much to understand about this devastating disease. Scientists continue to conduct studies to learn more in the hopes of finding the origins of the disease and, ultimately, effective treatments and possibly a cure.
Depression is not a normal part of aging, and you should not consider it as such. When sadness is so pervasive and debilitating that it interferes with a person’s everyday functions, then it is a serious illness and needs to be treated.
About 15-20% of older adults in the United States suffer from depression according to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation (2008). It often goes untreated because the person suffering from it doesn’t want to talk about their sadness, worry, or despair. Likewise, family members and friends do not always recognize that the person suffering from depression is experiencing feelings that are not just “mood swings”.
It is normal to feel sad at the loss of a friend or partner and it is normal to feel blue when you are suffering from an illness or injury. However, when the feelings are pervasive, long lasting, and unrelenting, it is time to seek help. Depression can even happen to people for no apparent reason at all. When depression is properly diagnosed and treated, more than 80% of sufferers recover.