Normal signs of aging can mask symptoms of mental illness in the elderly. About 58% of people over age 65 think that depression is a normal part of aging. Myths like this often prevent seniors from having mental illnesses identified and treated.
To make matters more confusing, the stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic can exacerbate these symptoms. However, this also means symptoms may be underestimated or dismissed as being pandemic-related when they may have a different cause.
According to the CDC, an estimated 20% of people over the age of 55 have a mental health issue. Many mental illnesses can significantly affect physical and social well-being. Mental illnesses can, however, be hard to distinguish from regular signs of aging or pandemic-related anxiety or stress.
There are a number of factors that increase the risk for mental illness in the elderly, including pre-existing conditions such as:
- Alzheimer’s or other dementias
- Click here for information on differentiating delirium, depression, and dementia
- Thyroid disorders
- Degenerative diseases
Significant life changes can also increase mental illness risk:
- The loss of a loved one
- Becoming disables
- Enduring an illness or injury
- Chronic pain
- New medications
If your aging loved one has any of the above risk factors, it is important to pay attention to mood or behavior changes.
8 Common Symptoms of Mental Illness in Seniors
- Unusual Avoidances: For seniors, avoiding extreme heat or exhausting activities makes sense. However, avoiding eye contact, using the bathroom, touching certain objects, or participating in events is atypical. Watch for extreme or unusual avoidances.
- Difficulty Making Basic Decisions: Decision-making is affected by memory, emotions, and judgement processes. When seniors struggle to make basic decisions or change their minds frequently the issue may be caused by mental illness.
- Unexplained Stomach Distress: A person’s gut reveals much about their physiological state. If a senior has unexplained digestive problems, they may be experiencing feelings or thoughts due to mental illness that are causing distress.
- Agitation or Moodiness: Irritability among seniors may occur as a result of physical conditions like chronic pain. However, agitation and moodiness that is disassociated from a reasonable cause can indicate a mental health problem.
- Change in Appetite or Sleeping Patterns: Often a change in eating or sleeping habits is the first sign people notice of depression. Pay attention to a senior’s routine and ask questions to understand why their habits may otherwise be changing.
- Disinterest with Fatigue: Feeling tired can occur as a result of aging. When tiredness becomes constant or chronic fatigue, it may be a sign of something more. Be on alert for a disinterest in hobbies or decrease in socialization due to fatigue.
- Hallucinations or Delusions: If a senior recalls information that doesn’t make sense or that never occurred, they may be experiencing hallucinations or delusions. These symptoms may present as paranoia or as simple confusion.
- Sudden Changes in Behavior and Attitude: It is unusual for optimistic seniors to suddenly feel sad all of the time with no cause. Likewise, a senior who participates in a hobby regularly and without explanation stops may be struggling with a mental illness.
Due to stigmas and myths about mental illnesses, many seniors are unwilling to visit a mental health professional like a psychologist. Seniors are often more likely to be honest with primary care providers and may receive treatment from them more willingly.
Family caregiving for a loved one living with mental illness can be challenging. It’s important to take care of yourself and get some time for yourself and with other loved ones and friends. Assisting Hands Home Care serving Cincinnati is here to help – give us a call for a consultation designed to assess your specific situation. We’ll find you a qualified caregiver, who is always supported by our nurse care managers, and create a plan to get you the support you need.
SOURCES: ClearCare, CDC, Mental Health America Survey, Today’s Geriatric Medicine