Nothing brought the loneliness of older people to the forefront more than the Covid-19 pandemic. Because of their vulnerability to the virus, even seniors with strong support systems were suddenly isolated and alone. As we sought to keep them safe by avoiding contact, they struggled with anxiety and depression. However, as things return to a more normal state, it’s important that we don’t forget about the mental health of our senior citizens. For many, their sadness has less to do with the pandemic and more to do with the boredom, isolation, and dependence they have experienced since retirement or the loss of a spouse.
Typical Mental and Emotional Health Issues in Seniors
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), before the Covid-19 pandemic, 20 percent of people 55 and older had some type of mental health concern. There is no data yet on the mental health of seniors post-Covid, but we can safely assume that the numbers are even higher. Common conditions include:
- Depression. The most prevalent mental health problem older adults experience is depression, and many seniors are undiagnosed. The CDC estimates that 80 percent of seniors with depression have a treatable condition. Depression can lead to physical, mental and social functioning impairments. In fact, men over the age of 85 have the highest suicide rate of any age group.
- Anxiety. Worry about a physical condition or memory loss, fear of being alone, and apprehension about what the future holds contribute to heightened levels of anxiety among older people.
- Stress. While some older people feel uneasy about their situations, others have a more extreme reaction. Seniors might be under a great deal of stress as they care for a spouse, lose their independence, and experience financial hardship.
- Cognitive impairment. Seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s suffer from all of the above at higher rates than seniors who are not cognitively impaired. It’s important to monitor the mental health of seniors with all forms of dementia, even in the early stages.
According to the CDC’s report, The State of Mental Health and Aging in America, seniors in Texas and Arkansas report higher rates of frequent mental distress and current depression than seniors in other states. This means we need to confront this problem in the ArkLaTex.
How Can You Support the Mental Health of an Elderly Loved One?
The first thing you should do if you think your loved one is depressed, anxious, or stressed is to seek professional help for them. It’s never too late to start counseling or therapy, and it might be just what your loved one needs. A doctor might suggest anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication, and you can help your parent or grandparent understand that there is no shame or weakness in taking medications to improve their mental and emotional health.
It’s also important to recognize that, as much as you love your parent or grandparent, you cannot take full responsibility for their mental health. That’s too much to ask of any one person. In addition to helping them find a therapist or doctor, you can help connect them to the following types of programs and activities in their community:
- Physical activity. There is a strong link between mental health and physical activity. Whether it’s a gentle yoga class, ballroom dancing, or just a walk in the park or the mall, being active can help your loved one’s mood significantly.
- Mentally stimulating activities. A healthy brain is an active one. Joining a book club, taking a class, doing a puzzle, or playing an instrument stimulates the brain and helps older people avoid cognitive decline. You can help your loved one access an online class, learn to use a tablet for games, or get to an in-person activity.
- Friends. It can be hard for seniors to maintain friendships and make new friends, especially if they have moved recently. You can help by providing transportation for get-togethers or teaching them to use FaceTime or Zoom to stay in touch with old friends.
- Pets. Taking full responsibility for a pet might be too much for an older person, but you can help out where needed. Keep in mind that senior pets often go unadopted in shelters, but they can make a good match for a senior owner!
It’s important that, as a caregiver, you get the support you need as you help your loved one through a mental health struggle.
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