When to Get Mental Health Services for Seniors


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As we grow older, certain changes take place in our brains. Some are common, others are not. A little forgetfulness may be normal, as is sadness and frustration in struggling with the challenges aging brings. However, mental changes that last for an unusually long period of time — or do not respond to common intervention methods – may indicate a more serious issue. If you notice any of these changes taking place in your elderly loved one, it may be a time for you to look into mental health services for seniors.

Symptoms of depression in seniors

One of the most common mental changes in seniors is depression. Depression affects more than 6.5 million Americans aged 65 years or older. The majority of people in this age group have actually experienced episodes of the illness throughout their lives, but that doesn’t mean it should be considered “stable.” Depression presents differently in older people than it does in those who are younger. Be on the lookout for symptoms such as:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Poor appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Vague complaints of pain
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Unwarranted help-seeking behavior
  • Moving in a slow manner or “shuffling”
  • Making unreasonable demands

Don’t forget that many older individuals were born in a generation that didn’t acknowledge or treat depression appropriately. They may feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit they suffer from low mood, or may say “no” when asked specifically if they have depression. At this point, it is probably best to involve a licensed mental health professional in their care.

Symptoms of anxiety in seniors

Many people don’t think of anxiety disorders when considering mental health services for seniors. However, anxiety is four to eight times more prevalent in the elderly than depression, and twice as common as dementia. Older adults frequently perceive anxiety as physical symptoms rather than emotional ones. So while you may not hear about signs such as constant worrying, your loved one could experience an increase in headaches, gastrointestinal distress, fatigue, chest pain, and shortness of breath. Once their doctor has ruled out a physical cause for these issues, look for the following additional signs of anxiety in seniors:

  • Weight gain or loss
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Insomnia
  • Fearfulness about leaving the house
  • Social isolation
  • Misuse or abuse of prescription medication

Symptoms of dementia in seniors

In addition to anxiety and depression, dementia is a common factor among those who seek mental health services for seniors. Dementia is actually a catchall term for a collection of symptoms that affect cognition, mood, and behavior, but are not a normal part of aging.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, but there are others types, such as vascular or mixed dementia. At times, the condition comes on very suddenly, but it can also present gradually over a period of weeks or months. If you think your loved one may be suffering from dementia, keep a sharp eye out for issues such as:

  • Issues with memory
  • Impaired judgment
  • Poor reasoning
  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Difficulty communicating
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Trouble with walking, coordination, and balance
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Irritability or agitation
  • Lack of attention to personal hygiene
  • Forgetting to eat
  • Lack of awareness for personal safety
  • Repeatedly asking the same question or making the same statements
  • Short attention span
  • Not recognizing familiar people, places, and items
  • Sudden difficulty performing routine tasks

Get mental health services for seniors as soon as possible

If you notice your elderly loved one exhibiting any of the symptoms listed above, it’s important to get mental health services for seniors as soon as possible. Talk to their primary care physician or therapist about possible steps to take. If your loved one is homebound, their doctor may recommend a licensed home care agency to complete an assessment, make recommendations, and even perform therapy. Remember, mental well-being is like any other health issue: you should not attempt to diagnose and treat it alone.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home senior care. Contact us to find out more.

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