Understanding and Improving Seniors’ Mental Health

Dennis Relojo-Howell

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Dennis Relojo-Howell, (2019, December 10). Understanding and Improving Seniors’ Mental Health. Psychreg on Developmental Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/seniors-mental-health/
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Senior healthcare, which includes mental health and well-being, is poised as a unique and sometimes misunderstood aspect of ageing. Developing a deep understanding of senior mental health is a crucial first step for family and caregivers 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 seniors globally at 5% and 7%, respectively. Delving deeper, anxiety disorders affect 3.8% of seniors, while substance use problems affect nearly %.

The WHO also posits that mental health disorders among seniors are under-identified by healthcare professionals and seniors themselves, and ongoing stigma surrounding these topics can make it challenging for people to speak up. By knowing and understanding the facts about senior 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 into dementia and depression, treatment options for ageing adults, and the ways in which we can help support them:=

Risk factors for mental health problems among seniors

There are many mental health risk factors that can affect anyone at any age. For seniors, 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, behavior 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 seniors 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 seniors

Treating dementia and depression among seniors 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 senior healthcare. 

With this in mind, the Canadian Mental Health Association developed the following guidelines for caregivers 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 seniors 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 seniors who have experienced strokes for the development of depression as it is a common complication of stroke
  • Provide training for health care workers, depressed seniors, 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 in the nature of depression, its biological, psychological and social aspects, effective coping strategies, and lifestyle changes that 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 reaction 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 programs 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 seniors 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 founder of Psychreg. He is also the editor-in-chief of Psychreg Journal Psychology, and writes a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today

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