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How to Improve the Mental Health of Older Adults

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Older adults healthcare, which includes mental health and well-being, is a unique and sometimes misunderstood aspect of ageing. Developing a deep understanding of older adults’ mental health is a crucial first step for family and carers alike when caring for an ageing loved one.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dementia and depression are the two most common neurological disorders currently affecting older adults globally, at 5% and 7%, respectively. Delving deeper, anxiety disorders affect 3.8% of older adults, while substance use problems affect nearly 10%.

The WHO also posits that mental health disorders among older adults are under-identified by healthcare professionals and older adults themselves, and the ongoing stigma surrounding these topics can make it challenging for people to speak up. By knowing and understanding the facts about older adults’ mental health, we can all strive to provide a better support system for our loved ones.

Below are some of the risk factors, further information on dementia and depression, treatment options for ageing adults, and ways in which we can help support them.

Risk factors for mental health problems among older adults

There are many mental health risk factors that can affect anyone at any age. For older adults, these factors may include the ongoing loss of friends and loved ones, combined with their own decline in functional abilities. Chronic pain, reduced mobility, frailty, and other health problems can contribute to these feelings of decline and can take a toll on mental health, especially when combined with bereavement.

As such, engaging in an active lifestyle (both mentally and physically) can be an effective approach to boosting psychological well-being. Additionally, if you and your family feel that it’s the right time, a move to a retirement residence can aid in promoting this active lifestyle as well as encourage socialisation to combat isolation. 

Dementia and depression as public health issues

It can be difficult to identify if your ageing loved ones suffer from either dementia or depression since there is often overlap in symptoms. It’s important to remember that only a doctor can make a diagnosis, thus, if you find yourself or a loved one experiencing any symptoms of either disorder, it’s important to see your doctor right away. 

Dementia is a neurological syndrome, both chronic and progressive, that results in the deterioration of memory, thinking, behaviour, and the ability to perform everyday activities. Some common symptoms include, but are not limited to: 

  • Memory loss that affects day-to-day function
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Changes in personality
  • Poor or decreased judgement

Similarly, depression among older adults is both under-diagnosed and under-treated, as the symptoms of depression often work in conjunction with other problems experienced by older adults. Common symptoms of depression can include, but are not limited to:

  • Worrying a lot or feeling anxious or panicky
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Having thoughts of self-harm 

While there is no cure for either disorder, there is much you and your loved one can do to promote physical and psychological well-being. This can include:

  • Keeping mentally and physically active through physical activity, yoga or mindful meditation
  • Build social support through a network of family and friends, a community support group or an active retirement residence
  • Consider counselling, therapy or memory care options

Preventing, recognising and treating mental health issues among older adults

Treating dementia and depression among older adults can often be difficult simply because the symptoms of both are often conflated. Education is perhaps one of the most important tools on the path to revitalising healthcare for older adults. 

With this in mind, the Canadian Mental Health Association developed the following guidelines for carers and families caring for a loved one living with depression or dementia to ensure they get the care and treatment they need.

  • Implement a system of care that addresses the physical, functional, and psychosocial needs of older, depressed adults.
  • Ensure continuity of care for older depressed adults, as they appear to respond better to consistent providers.
  • Monitor older adults who have experienced depression for recurrence for two years after treatment.
  • Treat dementia patients who have mild depressive symptoms or symptoms of short duration with psychosocial supportive interventions first.
  • Monitor older adults who have experienced strokes for the development of depression, as it is a common complication of stroke.
  • Provide training for health care workers, depressed older adults, family members, and the public: (1) specialised training for healthcare professionals; and, (2) training in geriatric mental health issues for personnel caring for older depressed adults.
  • Education for older depressed adults on the nature of depression, its biological, psychological, and social aspects, effective coping strategies, and lifestyle changes will assist recovery while being mindful of the individuals’ stresses and strengths.
  • Information for family members on signs and symptoms of depression, attitudes and behaviours of depressed people and their own reactions to them, coping strategies, treatment options, and the benefits of treatment.

Alternatively, a move to a retirement residence is sometimes the best option for all parties involved, as these residences can help mitigate the effects of isolation and promote an active lifestyle.

Many retirement residences offer various group and one-on-one programmes that can potentially aid you or your loved one in engaging in physical activity and mental exercises, eating a balanced diet, and socialising in a group setting. Additionally, there are often options tailored to specific needs for more personalised care.

The more we understand about older adults and their mental health, the better positioned we’ll be to fully address their needs and provide the care to which they’re entitled. If you feel that your ageing loved one may be experiencing any of the symptoms discussed here, or elsewhere, ensure you consult a trusted medical professional for a full assessment to best plan for their future, long-term care. If you or your ageing loved one feel it’s time to move to a retirement residence check out Seasons Retirement Communities and their assisted living options best suited to you and your family.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.

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