As the baby boomers age here in the U.S., they are going to swell the ranks of seniors. And senior care — especially mental health care — is one of the most ignored in America. We act as though seniors don’t matter much, and few health care and mental health care professionals go into specializations, such as geriatric psychology, that can help senior citizens.
Perhaps that will change, with more attention and focus provided on this group of people. Because as we age, we often face many of the same difficulties as we did earlier in life.
Except these difficulties are often amplified, because of the loss of social support — our friends — and isolation — most often from our own family.
The New York Times profiles Marc E. Agronin, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist to showcase the mental health challenges of our aging population.
Seniors face the usual array of declining health issues. Things don’t work as well as they did when we were younger. We don’t have as much stamina, we lose our hair or our looks (or both!), and physical activity can sometimes be more exhausting than when we were younger. Of course, diseases associated with aging — such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s — become more commonplace as well.
All of this takes a toll on our mental health, too. Knowing our health is declining can be a disappointment hard to cope with. Losing loved ones as we age brings on a seemingly never-ending parade of grief. And the isolation of being placed in an assisted living facility or nursing home can make some people feel like there’s little left to live for.
Typically, the suicide rate amongst older adults is the highest among all age groups. While there is some variability from year to year (for instance, over the past two years, middle-aged adults’ suicide rate has surpassed that of older adults), this is a pretty stable statistic. “The highest rates of suicide in the United States occur among older white men.” (McKeown et al., 2006).
But in the media (and social media), often all people talk about are the suicide rates of teenagers and young adults. For some reason, people seem to rarely talk about the mental health issues of older adults.
So I was especially pleased to read this article that helps highlight the mental health needs of our aging population:
Dr. Agronin, 45, is unusual not just because of his specialty but because he is a salaried staff member immersed in the fabric of life for patients and caregivers. Residents in most senior facilities must await a shifting cast of mental health professionals, who are available — even for a prescription — only one or two days a week or in an emergency.
Now, a growing number of experts are calling for integrating mental health professionals into all levels of communities for the rising population of aging Americans, from nursing homes to assisted-living centers.
Gary Kennedy, the director of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, says psychological care is “equally if not more important than” medical care for this group. “Health policy continues to lag behind the reality that these are now mental health facilities,” Dr. Kennedy said of communities for the elderly.
Indeed. We have to realize that the mental health needs of older adults are just as important as other age groups. I suspect some of us dismiss these kinds of needs of older Americans because we feel like they are at the end of their lives, retired, and so don’t have as much to offer society in general. Or we throw up our hands and suggest there’s “only so much we can do to help.”
There’s a lot we can do to help, however. We can acknowledge the challenges of seniors and help meet those challenges with adequate resources. We can encourage and incentivize more mental health professionals — such as psychologists and psychiatrists — to specialize in senior mental health care. We can encourage our families to keep engaged with parents and other family members as they age.
And we can make facilities for the aging — such as nursing homes — be more like “homes” and less like hospitals. Too many of these facilities have underpaid staff who try their best with very little resources, so that we can better help the people in their care.
Becoming older isn’t a condition that needs treatment. But it is a stage of life where more health and mental health concerns can combine to snowball, creating greater challenges for older adults. During Mental Health Month, it’s a good idea to keep in mind this all-too-often forgotten group.
Read the full article: A Doctor’s Focus Is the Minds of the Elderly