When we picture our elder years, most of us probably view it through a rose-tinted lens. We picture days spent relaxing and enjoying our retirement, spending time with loved ones and exploring new hobbies. Maybe we might even get a new pet because what better than a happy dog to fill an empty nest.
Many of us expect that our golden years will feature some physical health issues that are a part and parcel of ageing. But what many are not aware of is about the importance of mental health for the elderly. One study from the World Health Organization (WHO) found that over 15% of adults over 60 suffer from mental illness with the risk factors increasing with age.
As the world’s elderly population is expected to swell in the upcoming decades, the need to better understand the causes of mental illness in the elderly and further research into new treatments for said illnesses is of vital importance.
Types of Mental Illness in The Elderly And Their Causes:
The causes of mental illness in the elderly population can broadly be defined into two categories: Mood and personality disorders that are impacted by the environment and life changes and cognitive disorders in which ageing leads to the onset of mental decline.
Mood disorders include common mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety, while personality disorders include bipolar or borderline personality disorder conditions. While there is a genetic risk factor for these ailments, they can manifest later in life for some elderly folks as they struggle to adjust to a new routine or changes in living.
The rise in nuclear families means more and more elderly are now navigating their senior years alone or without a strong familial support system. The loss of friends, a spouse or a social group can increase feelings of isolation and loneliness that can contribute towards the development of such disorders.
Elders who require palliative care due to disabilities or serious illnesses or need outside help due to their age can also develop issues due to a loss of independence and health. Other problematic behaviours, such as hoarding, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety can also manifest due to a perceived lack of control over their environment and fear of change.
Cognitive disorders that manifest later in life usually are tied closely to age with those with a prior family history of such illnesses being at higher risk. Common cognitive disorders associated with ageing include Alzheimer’s, Dementia, Schizophrenia and general mental issues such as memory loss, sudden behavioural changes, delirium or hallucinations. Certain physical diseases, such as strokes can also speed up the advancement of cognitive disorders.
It should be noted that ageing can exacerbate symptoms of untreated mental illness that was already present in an individual beforehand. Certain unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse can also bring forth these problems with old age.
Many of us expect that our golden years will feature some physical health issues that are a part and parcel of ageing. But what many are not aware of is about the importance of mental health for the elderly.
The Warning Signs:
Often it can become easy to ignore the warning signs of mental illness in the elderly. Some symptoms, such as memory loss or mood swings are often mischaracterized as just signs of ageing. Additional challenges are present because older generations are either misinformed about mental illness or resistant to seek out treatment due to societal stigma.
This, combined with a lack of funding for affordable palliative treatment and mental health care in many parts of the world leaves the elderly to grapple with their conditions on their own. Often these conditions are not caught until much too late and leave family and friends unable to cope with the changes they see in their loved ones.
Some warning signs of mental illness and cognitive decline to look out for include:
- Sudden development of memory loss, especially issues recalling daily events, needing information repeated and recognizing close peers.
- Expressing confusion over their surroundings.
- A sudden withdrawal from social activities or hobbies they previously enjoyed.
- Sudden mood changes, particularly extreme emotional outbursts.
- An increase in drinking, smoking or other forms of substance abuse.
- Neglecting personal hygiene or care.
How we can help:
While there are no surefire ways to prevent mental illness completely, there are several things families can do to support their elders emotionally. These can include taking them in for regular health checkups to aid in the early detection of cognitive problems, introducing them to new hobbies or assistive technology that can aid them in maintaining contact with their social group.
For those with a family history of cognitive disorders, it can be proactive to establish a treatment plan for elderly parents in case they may need round-the-clock care as they get older and deteriorate. Lastly, what’s most important is simply being there for them. Elders with strong family ties and those living in a joint family system fare better with their mental health.
Every human deserves to live out their final years with peace and dignity. Mental healthcare for the elderly is an important way of ensuring that this can be done.