America — like the rest of the world — is facing a fundamental shift in its population from younger to older in the next few decades. Due to great leaps in technology and health, people are simply living longer.
Some places aren’t well-prepared for this shift. Nowhere is that more true than in the U.S.
In America, I’m ashamed to acknowledge we too-often treat seniors like people whose contributions to society have ended. They have nothing left to share, and so are shuffled off to a nursing home.
How does that make the elderly feel? Let’s just say that it’s not real good for their mental health.
An article in the Dallas Morning News by Pamela Yip lays out the worldwide problem:
By 2050, people over the age of 60 will outnumber children under the age of 15 for the first time in history.
The index compiles data from the U.N., World Health Organization, World Bank and other global agencies. It analyzes income, health, education, employment and age-friendly environments in each country.
The report ranks the social and economic well-being of elders in 91 countries, with Sweden coming out on top and Afghanistan at the bottom.
The U.S. ranked eighth.
This is a huge wake-up call for all of us to find new ways to support and sustain the bulging population of seniors that will be among us.
In the U.S. the number of adults over 65 will double in the next two decades — placing a tremendous burden on existing health and mental health services. Our healthcare and mental health care system in the U.S. simply isn’t ready for this shift.
In a country already facing a recurring shortage of psychiatrists in many geographic regions in the U.S. (good luck finding a child psychiatrist who takes insurance!), we’re simply not prepared to deal with this increase.
Already today, you find many seniors being largely warehoused in nursing homes, placed on atypical antipsychotics not because they need them medically, but because people on such medications are simply easier to manage. In nursing homes that are typically understaffed and under-resourced, atypical antipsychotics have been a godsend. But they are not a long-term solution. (And, in fact, are contraindicated for many people in this age bracket.)
We need far more mental health professionals receiving training in geriatric specialties, to help with this growing population’s needs. We need to find ways to help keep seniors living independently for as long as possible, because when they remain in their community amongst family and friends, both their physical and mental health benefits.
We, as a country, need to pull together and recognize that seniors are not just people who are at the end of their lives, waiting to pass on. They are just like anyone else — vibrant, alive, with still as many hopes, dreams and goals as we all have. While our bodies age, our minds will usually stay pretty much just as alert and engaged as a young person’s (unless beset by disease).
Sadly, however, we discriminate and show our prejudice against seniors all too often. We need to start planning today, as a society, to end this discrimination. We need to help ensure their long lives are just as rewarding and mentally-healthy as all of ours are.