April showers are supposed to bring May flowers, but what does May bring? It brings Mental Health Awareness Month…among other things. If you are a caregiver to an older loved one, this is particularly important. Mental illness – particularly depression – is a high risk for individuals as they age. One out of every four older adults has some form of diagnosable mental illness in any given year. About six percent of older adults manifest some form of clinical depression, but older adults can also respond to talk therapy and medication for their mental health issues at rates comparable to younger adults. Yet, older adults more often go undiagnosed and therefore untreated.
Some people have a lifelong battle with a mental illness like depression, but for many more it may be precipitated by a condition like stroke, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, cancer or arthritis. But older adults also have a life that has accumulated losses, most specifically they have lost friends, family, loved ones. We all probably know that the average life expectancy in the U.S. is just under 79 years…that means that the typical 79 year old has lost half of their friends and family by that time. The rate of suicide for 75+ year olds in the U.S. also is higher than any other younger cohort, in part because those over 65 have a “success rate” in their suicide attempts that is five times more lethal than those who are younger.
This is not to depress you; it is a wake-up call.
It will be up to those of you who are caregivers to older loved ones to look for the signs, because only half of depressed patients are diagnosed by their primary care physicians and only half of patients who discuss any depressive symptoms with their physicians will get any treatment. So, what should you look for?
- Any signs of a sad or “blue” phase that lasts more than a couple weeks
- Difficulty remembering things or confusion in even familiar settings
- Self-medicating with pain medications or alcohol
- Perpetual worries around money or health or loved ones
- Sustained challenges sleeping or concentrating
- Intense caregiving for a loved one that is not allowing them to “get a break”
If you see any of these signs, bring them to your loved one’s physician’s attention…and be persistent if the signs and symptoms persist. Sadness or depression are not “just part of getting older.” Eighty percent of older adults who are diagnosed and get treatment recover from their depression. Your “mental health awareness” can be their mental health cure!
Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.