Jennifer Christian Herman, Ph.D., vice president, Mindbody Medicine at the Blue Shield of California, shares important points for older people about behavioral health, the stigma of mental health, the pandemic effect on this health problem, and how treatment and self-care can help.
How has the pandemic affected the elderly?
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that adults aged 65 and over, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), were at risk for their physical health. But the impact of the virus on the elderly has gone beyond the physical. This affected their mental health. Whether it is social and economic hardship or lack of access to family, friends or even health care providers, adults have experienced increased feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances, some of which may be due to intermittent physical activity.
What are some of the common mental health problems that older people face?
According to the World Health Organization, more than 20% of adults over the age of 60 suffer from a mental or neurological disorder (excluding headaches) and 6.6% of all disabilities (years of life adjusted for disability-DALY) among people over 60 years are attributed to mental and neurological disorders. Dementia, depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse are the most common. In most cases, these mental health problems are treatable, but adults are less likely to seek or receive care. This is partly due to stigma and the misconception that their symptoms are a normal part of aging.
How do you recognize depression in the elderly?
Depression is not just about the blues or the sadness you feel when you grieve the loss of a loved one. This is a medical condition that is treatable, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
Someone who is depressed has a feeling of sadness or anxiety that can last for weeks. He or she may also experience:
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies that were once enjoyable
- Noticeable changes in mood, energy level or appetite
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering and making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping or too much sleep
- Feelings of hopelessness and / or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, uselessness and / or helplessness
- Irritability, anxiety
- Suicide thoughts, suicide attempts
- Persistent pain, headache, cramps or digestive problems that do not improve even with treatment
It is important to know the signs and symptoms of depression and to look for clues. Ask the person directly if you are concerned. Listen carefully if someone says they feel depressed, depressed or empty. One can really ask for help.
Why do older people develop depression?
The reasons why older people develop depression are usually different from the reasons why this problem affects young adults or children. Here are some examples of why:
- Social isolation: Concerns about COVID-19 and the need to stay away from others for a long time over the past two years have had a major impact on the mental health of older people.
- Medical condition: Older people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes or heart disease are at greater risk for depression than healthy people, and older people are more likely to have one or more current health problems.
- Important events in life: A traumatic event such as the death of a spouse or partner or other beloved family member or friend increases the risk of developing depression.
Healthcare providers can mistake the symptoms of depression in an older person as a normal or natural reaction to illness, disability or life changes that can occur with age and therefore not think that depression is something. which needs to be treated. This, unfortunately, means that older people are often misdiagnosed, not diagnosed at all and not treated enough when it comes to depression.
Older adults may be less likely to recognize that they are experiencing mental health symptoms and may not realize that they will feel better with appropriate treatment. This may be due in part to the stigma that exists in mental health problems or other causes. It is important to check on older people in your life and ask them how they are doing, especially if you notice a change in their behavior and / or mood.
When is the right time to seek help and how can older people find care?
It is important to seek help as soon as you or someone you love begins to experience symptoms. Depression, even major depression, can be treated. Getting treatment sooner or later is important.
- Start by making an appointment to see a primary care physician or mental health provider to discuss what is happening and see if treatment can help.
- If you notice changes in the mood or behavior of a senior family member or friend, encourage them to talk to a health care provider as soon as possible.
How can self-care and a healthy lifestyle help adults maintain their overall well-being?
Proper nutrition, activity and engagement with others play an important role in maintaining good mental and physical health.
Adults who have medical coverage with Blue Shield of California have access to Wellvolution at no extra cost, which includes online programs and resources to improve mental well-being, weight loss, smoking cessation, diabetes treatment and more. One behavioral health app available to Wellvolution participants, for example, is Headspace, a mindfulness and meditation app that offers hundreds of tools and more than 1,000 exercises to reduce stress and improve mental well-being.
If you have a family member or friend who suffers from mental health problems:
- Encourage the individual to discuss their symptoms with their primary care physician or other caregivers, and offer to help them find a therapist or other behavioral health physician if necessary.
- Discuss issues such as depression openly, just as you would for physical health, such as diabetes or heart disease, to reduce stigma.
- Encourage them to participate in activities such as walking, social activities or enjoying nature. Older generations may feel less comfortable discussing mental health and offering suggestions to help them can reinforce that you are there for them.
To learn more about Blue Shield of California’s Medicare plans: