Mental Illness in the Elderly: Types, Signs, and Treatment

Mental Illness in the Elderly: Types, Signs, and TreatmentMental illness in older adults is a complex topic and a growing concern as the percentage of our senior population increases. The elderly are often at higher risk for mental illness than younger age groups, which makes detecting the signs, getting an accurate diagnosis, and the right treatment particularly critical.

Types of Mental Illness in the Elderly

The elderly experience many types of mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, which are all classified as mood disorders. Other types of mental illness such as schizophrenia are rarely seen in older adults. Depression is the most commonly diagnosed mental illness in seniors 65 and older, according to the American Psychiatric Association. While not technically categorized as mental illness, seniors with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia will often exhibit anxiety and depressive symptoms.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website is an excellent resource for finding out more about these foremost types of mental illness in the elderly.

Signs of Mental Illness in Seniors

Mental illness in seniors is hard to diagnose and is under-diagnosed or mistaken for other chronic health conditions. Seniors also tend to downplay their symptoms to family, caregivers, and their doctors, making mental illness difficult to spot. But if you are aware of the signs in yourself or a loved one, it will help.

The best way to look for mental illness in the elderly is to observe any changes in eating, sleeping, and activity habits. If you see changes in normal routines, it could be signs of mental illness. Depression is usually characterized by a listless or fatigued appearance. Anxiety can be hyperactivity or stress reactions. Signs of bipolar disorder are severe mood swings. Because signs of mental illness in the elderly can mimic other illnesses, it’s best to start with a thorough medical exam and talk to your doctor.

“Often a senior will show signs of mental illness that have an organic cause,” says Rhonda Burnaugh, RN, CCM, a behavioral health case manager and a psychiatric nurse who has treated mental illness in adults for close to three decades. “For instance, seniors who are dehydrated may have symptoms of psychosis, which is not knowing where they are, hallucinating, having delusional thoughts, or cognitive impairment.”

“Many physical illnesses like Parkinson’s disease may have signs of depression in some patient,” says Burnaugh. “A doctor’s exam will rule out any of these other ‘differential diagnoses’ to determine if there is mental illness.”

Mental Illness Treatment for Senior Citizens

Most mental illness treatment involves very specific medications like anti-depressants. According to the NIMH, finding the right medication for the elderly can be challenging due to age-related illnesses and the high incidence of seniors taking multiple medications that might cause drug interactions. Your primary care doctor usually will prescribe for you, but in some cases, will refer you to a psychiatrist whose specialty is working with mental illness medications.

In addition to medications, counseling is suggested. Seniors are often resistant to therapy due to generational social norms about not talking about your problems. But therapists who treat older adults are very competent in presenting counseling as a treatment that will make them feel better. Group therapy activities for adults is another treatment option.

Being informed and knowing what signs of mental illness to watch for will allow for the early detection and treatment of mental illness in seniors.

Has your life been touched by the mental illness of a senior citizen you love?



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