Mental health concerns across the senior and elderly populations are widely undiagnosed, but with upwards of 7 million seniors reportedly suffering in silence and solitude, it’s time to identify—and take steps to reverse—what appears to be a global mental health epidemic among the senior population.
While diagnoses like dementia and Alzheimer’s are consistently at the forefront of the conversation, depressive disorders actually represent the #1 mental health issue among seniors. But depression and its many iterations consistently go unrecognized and untreated among seniors, a clear sign that more vigilance is needed to identify and sufficiently treat symptoms of depression before they escalate and potentially lead to more serious outcomes, such as major depressive episodes, self-destructive behaviors, and even suicide.
Various lifestyle factors among seniors can act as powerful catalysts for depression, from declining physical abilities to the loss of friends and loved ones. However, the emphasis on seniors maintaining independence actually works against them in this case, making it less likely affected seniors will ask for or seek out the help they need in any sort of timely manner.
Clearly, seniors and society as a whole can do better. So as we work to further the discussion about seniors and mental health, understanding these early warning signs and the many available tools and outlets for effectively dealing with mental health concerns is a crucial first step towards ensuring longer and more fulfilling lives for seniors.
Early Warning Signs
There’s a strong and very direct correlation between declining mental health and worsening physical health. So beyond just changes in mood, feeling sad or lonely, or deriving less joy from certain activities, paying less attention to personal grooming and appearance, changing eating or sleep patterns, or withdrawing from family or social activities should all raise concerns and not go unaddressed if noticed.
Important warning signs to look for in order to identify mental health concerns in seniors include:
- Persistent sadness
- Trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much
- Decreased socialization
- Loss of interest in usual activities
- Excessive worrying
- Feeling worthless, helpless, or hopeless
- Changes in appetite
- Crying spells
- Trouble focusing, remembering, or making decisions
- Declining personal care and appearance
7 Ways Seniors Can Improve Mental Health
Although seniors might be uniquely vulnerable, they are not helpless when it comes to combatting mental health concerns. So whether it’s going on the offensive and taking preventive measures, or just being aggressive about soliciting help and support, using all available tools and resources is key to feeling better faster and continually cultivating an environment in which seniors are empowered and vigilant when it comes to ensuring their own mental health.
- Challenge the Mind: Spend time reading and/or writing, studying a foreign language or other subject, playing an instrument, or doing puzzles
- Get Physical: Take regular walks, make exercise an important part of life, and enjoy physical activities where possible
- Stay Connected with Friends: Stave off the ill effects of loneliness and isolation by remaining in regular contact with friends and loved ones. Technology like FaceTime and Skype make video calling simple and seamless, but there’s always e-mail, sending letters or postcards, and old-fashioned phone calls, too
- Take Part in Events & Activities: At senior living communities nationwide, activities programs are specially designed to offer a variety of recreation and social options, which leave seniors feeling more active, involved, and purposeful about their day-to-day lives
- Volunteering: Doing good for others is a great way to do good for ourselves, too. Giving time to worthy organizations from the local community helps support causes, but also makes the individual feel valued, appreciated, and more accomplished in the process
- Caring for a Pet: Animals offer unconditional love and companionship, and where appropriate, can keep seniors active and more engaged while leading their care. Alternatively, volunteering at a local animal shelter can have a similar effect without the full-time responsibility
- Get Help: It’s long past time to defeat the lingering stigmas about mental health and be proactive about asking for help. Medical professionals in both the office and residential setting are trained to recognize warning signs, but can also help expedite proper care for affected seniors.