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Older Adults and Mental Health: 4 Ways to Prevent Senior Mental Health Issues

Written by 
Katee Fletcher
Reviewed by 
Jill Degen, APN

Article at a glance

  • Older adults commonly face mental health disorders such as depressions, anxiety, and substance abuse.
  • Risk factors for mental illness in seniors include retirement, grief, sudden medical diagnoses, and more.
  • There are many ways to protect our mental health as we age including maintaining a healthy lifestyle, being aware of the warning signs, and engaging in social activities.

Meet Jill Degen, a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Jill Degen, APRN, PMHNP, is a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner and has been working in mental health for 13 years. She’s passionate about advocating and ensuring patients receive effective, compassionate, and trauma-informed treatment.

I’m passionate about mental health because it’s often stigmatized by society. Mental health is talked about in a secretive tone which makes it difficult for people to talk about their concerns. All patients at Oak Street Health are asked about their mental health to ensure they receive the necessary care to keep them healthy and out of the hospital. For some, this is the first time they feel comfortable enough to talk about how they are mentally feeling. I have had many patients over the years express gratitude for having a safe space to talk and be heard about their mental health, and wished they would have known sooner how helpful it has been in their life.” 

This article does a great job describing different ways older adults experience mental health, what to look out for, and ways to build a balanced lifestyle that fosters a healthy mental health. Embracing your mental health and asking for help is a starting point that can lead to a more fulfilling life.

Common Mental Health Issues in Older Adults

Strong mental health and wellness is vital to living a healthy, happy life for all of us– including older adults. However, in recent years, it’s been found that older adults and seniors are struggling with mental health issues more frequently than ever. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 14% of those over 60 struggle with a mental illness and that adults over 60 comprise over a quarter of the global suicide rate per year (27.2%).

Mental and physical health is linked which is why preventing mental disorders as we age and maintaining mental health care by keeping ourselves mentally well and checking in on the mental health of our aging loved ones is critical. This article compiles information on mental health issues affecting older adults, ways to protect our mental health as we age, and resources for those who may be struggling.

Older adults struggle with a variety of mental health conditions, including:

  • Depression: otherwise known as major depressive disorder or geriatric depression, depression is characterized by intense and ongoing feelings of sadness, ambivalence to usual activities, and heightened anxiety. For more information on depression in older adults, visit this resource.
  • Anxiety: anxiety is characterized by ongoing fear or worry that prohibit you from participating in your normal routine.
  • Substance Abuse: in 2022, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine predicted that upwards of 5.7 million Americans over the age of 50 would require treatment for substance abuse. Seniors are not immune to addiction, in fact, it’s more common to struggle with substance abuse as we age.
  • Dementia: memory disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s become more prevalent as we age, affecting more than 55 million adults worldwide. These disorders greatly affect a senior’s life and everyday health. To learn more about dementia and other memory disorders, visit this resource.

Causes of Mental Illness in Seniors

Mental illness causes vary greatly across the board and mental health issues can stem from many things depending on the person experiencing them. In short, finding the cause of mental health issues is not one size fits all.” However, when it comes to older adults and mental health issues, there are some common triggers that widely affect the older demographic. Common causes of mental health problems in seniors include:

  • Grief and loss: after losing someone we love, it can be difficult to cope. Especially as we age, loss becomes more common and grief can feel overwhelming, contributing to various mental health issues.
  • Retirement: making a big lifestyle change such as retirement, can make us feel disoriented and upended from routine activities, contributing to depression or other mental health problems.
  • Loneliness: as we age, loss becomes more common and so does social isolation, which both contribute to loneliness and mental health struggles.
  • Medical diagnosis: receiving a sudden medical diagnosis such as cancer or a chronic illness, can leave someone feeling isolated and lost. Without finding ways to cope, these feelings can lead to ongoing mental health issues.
  • Chronic pain or illness: dealing with chronic pain or illness can spark ongoing feelings of isolation, sadness, and frustration leading to various mental illnesses.
  • Cognitive decline22% of adults over the age of 65 struggle with cognitive decline which can include dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other cognitive disorders. Cognitive disorders cause adults to feel confused and detached from their daily life, which can lead to coinciding depression and anxiety in their day-to-day routine.

Risk Factors of Mental Illness in Older Adults

Mental illness risk factors vary greatly from person to person, however, common risk factors of mental health struggles in older adults may include:

  • Recently losing a spouse, friend, or loved one
  • Struggling financially after retirement
  • Feeling a lack of life purpose or fulfillment after retirement
  • Experiencing ageism in society
  • Feeling socially isolated or lonely 
  • Experiencing elder abuse or neglect
  • Undergoing caregiver burnout while caring for a spouse or loved one
  • Struggling with substance abuse
  • Recently discovering a dire medical diagnosis
  • Coping with chronic pain or illness
  • Struggling with curating a healthy lifestyle
  • Recovering from a health scare such as a stroke, heart attack, major surgery, or a fall

Warning Signs of Mental Health Issues

Depending on the mental health issue someone is struggling with, their warning signs may vary. However, common signs of a mental health struggle may include:

  • Changes in sleep schedule (sleeping too much or not at all)
  • Lack of engagement in regular activities
  • Noticeable changes in appetite 
  • Prolonged feelings of worry, stress, fear, hopelessness, sadness, anger, or irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating or focussing
  • Feeling fatigued
  • Consistent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Seeing, hearing, or feeling things that others do not see, hear, or feel
  • Overuse of alcohol or drugs
  • Noticeable changes in personal hygiene

4 Ways to Protect Mental Wellness While Aging

There are many ways to protect your mental wellness as you get older, but they can be simplified into four categories that combat the top risk factors to an older person’s mental health. Four steps to protect your mental health while aging include:

  1. Curating a healthy lifestyle
  2. Staying socially active
  3. Maintaining finances
  4. Protecting yourself or your loved one from ageism and/​or elder abuse

Curate a Healthy Lifestyle

Leading a holistically healthy life incorporates a few different key elements, including a balanced diet, regular physical activity, good hygiene, consistent sleep, and visiting your doctor regularly for screenings, tests, and routine checkups. Not to mention, limiting alcohol use and preventing substance abuse are vital to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

  • Balanced Diet: Keeping a well-balanced diet improves your health by preventing illness and strengthening your body in various ways. It’s important to keep your nutrition up and your body operating at a strong capacity while you age. Not to mention, staying hydrated by regularly drinking water is crucial to keeping your diet healthy and your body in shape. For more information on what a good diet should look like for you, speak with your provider. For information on a heart healthy diet, visit here. For information on a diet plan for those with type 2 diabetes, visit here.
  • Physical Activity: Being regularly active as we age is crucial as it builds bone density, maintains our stress, and more. To learn more about what it means to be physically active and why it’s important, visit this resource.
  • Good Hygiene: Practicing good hygiene is important as we age because it keeps us clean and healthy. To learn more about good hygiene practices for seniors and why it’s important, visit this resource.
  • Consistent Sleep: Sleep is crucial when it comes to health because it is most effective at regulating our body, healing our bodies and minds, and boosting our health. To learn more about maintaining good sleep and why it’s critical to our health, visit this resource.
  • Doctor’s Visits: Staying on top of our preventive care regimen is vital to our health as well because it keeps us aligned with our necessary screenings, annual tests, regular vaccinations, and routine checkups. To learn more about getting a physical exam and why it’s critical to your health, visit this resource.

Stay Social

It’s easy to grow isolated and lonely as we age because bereavement and loss is more common. However, staying social and engaged as we get older is one of the most important things we can do for our health as it lowers our risk of mental illness, prevents us from chronic loneliness, and sharpens our cognitive skills.

Note: For more information on how to stay socially active while aging and why it’s important for your mental health, visit this resource.

Maintain Financial Security

Retirement creates a huge shift in our lives as we get older, transforming our lifestyle and financial structure. It’s vital for seniors to feel financially secure as they age in order to lessen their stress and worry. 

Note: For more information on how to stay financially secure, prevent yourself from fraud, manage your money, and more, visit this resource.

Protection From Ageism and/​or Abuse

Staying protected from ageism and abuse is crucial, especially if an older adult is looking to move into a nursing home or care facility. Study up on anti-discrimination policies, ask caregivers about their intervention training, and have someone close by that you trust and can open up to about what’s going on.

Note: For more information about ageism and elder abuse prevention, visit this resource

Treatment for Mental Illness in Seniors

Depending on the mental health issue a senior is struggling with, there are a few different ways they can receive treatment. Some of the most common treatments include therapy, medication, or finding a caregiver to help provider assistance. Speak with your provider to find a treatment method that works best for you to maintain good mental health.

Mental Health Resources

There are many mental health resources available that can help yourself, a family member, a friend, or someone else you may be worried is struggling with mental wellness. Some resources for mental health needs include:

General Resources

Find a Therapist

Immediate Assistance

Navigating Cancer Diagnosis

Addiction and Recovery

Veteran Mental Health Assistance

Become a patient

Experience the Oak Street Health difference, and see what it’s like to be treated by a care team who are experts at caring for older adults.

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