Changing What We Believe—Mental Health and Aging

By Diane Lotto, LMSW                                                                                                                          Team Leader for Senior Partnership Services at CoveCare Center

Consider this scenario: Judy is a 64 year old woman; she is talking to her friend about some changes she has noticed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. For the past two weeks, I’ve just been feeling so tired. It’s tough for me to get moving in the morning. The worst part is I keep walking into rooms and completely forgetting what I was in there for!” 

The socially acceptable reaction to Judy’s problem would be, “It happens to the best of us!” Or for her friend to poke fun at her “senior moments” and remind her, “We’re all slowing down these days.” But what we don’t stop to consider is that Judy has just described some of the frequently unrecognized symptoms of depression.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is “a common mental disorder, characterized by sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, feelings of tiredness and poor concentration.” In addition, it is important to note that research has found that in older adults, those who suffer from depression also more commonly report feelings of excessive tiredness and poor memory than their younger counterparts.

Judy’s scenario above is one example of how misconceptions and stigma can get in the way of older individuals receiving treatment for mental health symptoms. While depression is a highly common and treatable illness, it is not a “normal” part of the aging process. As we age, it is common for us to experience sadness when facing difficult situations. The loss of a spouse or other family members, or the untimely loss of children; feeling unfulfilled or “without purpose” after raising children or retiring; or the commonly referred to “empty nest” syndrome—these events can all cause individuals to feel appropriate sadness. The concern for depression arises when individuals are experiencing prolonged, unremitting sadness, hopelessness, or if they start to experience thoughts of not wanting to live anymore.

Depression is not the only concern when considering mental health for older adults. Individuals can also experience anxiety, characterized by excessive emotional and physical distress related to worries and concerns. Other mood and thought disorders that can change someone’s perception of reality and substance use issues are also prevalent. In fact, the WHO estimates that upward of 15% of all older adults (aged 60 and over) suffer from mental illness or substance abuse; however, many individuals go without sufficient treatment or receive no treatment at all.

It is commonplace that older adults will mainly receive medications to treat anxiety and depression from primary care physicians, or occasionally from a psychiatrist. Others may only see a psychiatrist for medication management once a month or less, but not receive any additional support. While medications can be a highly effective treatment option, it is important for an older adult to receive a comprehensive evaluation, including meeting with an individual therapist, addressing the issues he or she may be facing and finding appropriate resources, and exploring other available supports such as social groups and community involvement.

The goal of programs specifically designed for older adults is to encourage individuals to live healthy, positive lifestyles by maintaining independence in the community; this may include a range of services from securing safe and independent housing options to ensuring emotional support from professionals who specialize in working with older adults. Studies have shown that services and programs that provide social, emotional, and community support have better outcomes and prognoses for older individuals and seniors.

Here in New York State, and specifically Putnam County, mental health professionals are working together to expand knowledge and resources for an aging community. It is estimated that in Putnam County, 1 in 4 residents are aged 60 or over. In addition, Putnam has the fastest growing population of older adults in New York State. As the “baby boomer” generation moves into retirement age, it is expected that these numbers will continue to rise.

Senior Partnership Services is a triple-partnership program that has been established by CoveCare Center, a non-profit organization in Carmel, NY, that provides services to address mental health needs, social and emotional issues, and substance use prevention and treatment. Along with the Putnam County Office for Senior Resources (OSR) and the National Council on Alcohol and other Drug Dependencies (NCADD), the goal of Senior Partnership Services is to provide quality, person-centered mental health and substance use services for adults age 55 and over who may have difficulty accessing treatment due to physical, financial or transportation constraints. Senior Partnership Services are completely free, confidential, and a member of the team will meet with you in your home or wherever you are comfortable. Referrals can be made to Diane Lotto, LMSW, Team Leader for Senior Partnership Services at 845-225-2700 x 216.