The coronavirus pandemic has brought countless challenges for people across all parts of society. But if there is one benefit the healthcare sector can gain from this challenging time, it is a deeper understanding of the importance of mental health.
While people of all ages suffered during the pandemic, older adults were affected the most. This suffering has impacted their physical and mental health. As the virus started spreading, this age group was considered high-risk and thought to be the most vulnerable. They were advised to limit their social contacts and isolate at home. While this recommendation was made to protect the physical health of older adults, it ignored the detrimental effects that isolation would have on their mental health.
In addition, the physical effects of aging can predispose older adults to develop mental health problems. The loss of physical abilities, especially the ability to walk can cause its own form of social isolation. If your loved one struggles with isolation, it is natural to worry about them and their mental health. Finding an assisted living facility or nursing home that offers behavioral health care can significantly improve older adults’ well-being.
Mental Health and the Elderly
Although there is no direct connection between getting older and developing mental health conditions, many older adults suffer from depression, anxiety, and other related diagnoses. Some may have previously dealt with mental health concerns, but others begin having these problems later in life.
For some people, the challenges of getting older can trigger these mental health problems. Some of those challenges include:
- Failing physical health
- Side effects from medication
- Bereavement or loss
- Financial concerns
- Lack of social contact
Identifying Depression and Anxiety
It is not always easy to identify the onset of depression or anxiety in older adults. Most symptoms develop gradually and may not be obvious at first. In addition, both mental health conditions often present differently in older adults than they do in younger people. Older adults are also less likely to report feelings of depression or anxiety to their healthcare provider as they feel it is a normal part of aging.
Why Recognizing the Signs of Depression and Anxiety is Important
Late-life depression currently affects approximately six million Americans over the age of 65. It is closely associated with a higher risk of heart disease and can increase the risk of dying after a heart attack, even if the depression diagnosis is mild. It can also impact the immune system and prolong recovery from even mild illnesses. For these reasons, it is critical to recognize the symptoms of depression and anxiety and treat them early.
Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety in the Elderly
Depression can show itself in various ways as patients become older. Symptoms that are visible in younger people are often missing in seniors. In adults over the age of 65, depression causes the following signs and symptoms:
- Trouble sleeping and feeling tired during the day
- Grumpy, irritable behavior
- Changes in weight and appetite
- Slower movements
- Feelings of confusion
- Suicidal thoughts
While depression manifests differently, anxiety symptoms tend to be the same across different age groups. Here are some of the common signs and symptoms of anxiety:
- Panicky feelings and shakiness
- Muscle tension, soreness, and fatigue
- Feeling light-headed or dizzy
- Breathing difficulties, combined with sweating and nausea
- Avoidance of trigger activities, people, or locations
Some amount of anxiety or nervousness can be entirely normal, especially when people face changes, challenges, or uncertainty in their lives. However, when the symptoms last for weeks and become debilitating, it is essential to look for professional help.
Five-Point Roadmap for Dealing with a Loved One Suffering from Depression and Anxiety
Dealing with a loved one suffering from a mental health condition is not easy. Following these five steps will help caregivers and family members address the situation and support their parents or other older adults:
Step #1: Acknowledge
It is essential to realize that depression and anxiety are not normal aspects of aging. Factors related to aging may have caused or contributed to those mental health conditions, but that should not prevent older adults from receiving treatment. It is important to acknowledge depression and anxiety and any factors that may have contributed to the diagnosis. This can be done by identifying the root causes and seeking treatment.
Step #2: Talk
The stigma around mental illness is decreasing but talking to parents and loved ones about mental health challenges is still not easy. As a caregiver or family member, you should try to address any concerns you may see such as changes in a person’s interests, behaviors, or personality. It is essential to remain non-judgmental, but it is equally important to not avoid the issues.
Asking someone whether they feel depressed or have considered suicide is tough, but at the same time, asking these questions could save their life.
Step #3: Touch
Physical contact releases the “happy hormone”, known as oxytocin. As people grow older and lose their life partners and friends, they may have fewer opportunities for something as simple as a hand on their shoulder or a hug.
Without this touch, older adults may experience a decrease in oxytocin levels. Over time this can result in depression and anxiety changing from a passing feeling and developing into a more permanent condition. Granted, not every person likes to be hugged or touched all of the time so you should respect your parents’ or loved ones’ boundaries while remembering just how powerful physical contact can be.
During the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic, limited social contact certainly led to a lack of physical contact for seniors living in residential care settings. Unfortunately, the lack of touch and social interaction contributed to higher levels of anxiety and depression.
Step #4: Involve
Getting older does not mean that seniors have nothing left to contribute. The opposite is actually the case: those who remain physically and mentally active with a purpose often live longer, happier lives.
Think about the older adult in your life, what strengths do they have? Try to involve them and highlight these strengths whenever possible. Perhaps you need advice with a financial decision or you struggle to evaluate quotations from different tradespeople. Could your parents or another older adult help? They may be growing older and frailer, but many seniors still have a lot to contribute.
Step #5: Advocate
Put yourself in the position of your elderly parents or loved ones: when you are feeling emotionally low, can you make a good case for yourself? Do you find it easy to access the help you need? The answer is most likely no because even advocating for ourselves can be difficult.
It is important to advocate for anyone you suspect is suffering from depression, anxiety, or another mental illness. For elderly residents of assisted living facilities, support might include asking for a thorough mental health screening. If a condition is being diagnosed, seniors may also need help accessing the most beneficial treatment and resources.
How Behavioral Health can Help your Loved Ones Suffering from Depression and Anxiety
Behavioral health care is a critical factor in maintaining excellent physical and mental health. As people age, physical activities may become challenging, but there is no need for a person’s mental health to follow suit.
Behavioral health care helps to establish and maintain positive habits across different aspects of a person’s daily life. These habits may include regular exercise, predictable eating patterns, and access to opportunities to socialize.
Behavioral Health for Assisted Living Facilities
Assisted living communities must ensure they have the perfect setting for behavioral health care services. Their community-based setup encourages residents to socialize with others. Most communities also offer scheduled activities like walks or age-appropriate exercises. Having a good setting that encourages activity and socialization within an assisted living community can make all the difference.
Behavioral health programs tailored for assisted living facilities benefit the facility itself and its residents. Residents enjoy a better quality of life and facilities find it easier to attract and retain residents to their community by offering a more comprehensive range of services.
These benefits extend beyond the residents and will improve working conditions for the facility’s entire team. Staff members will find it easier to bond with long-term residents when they are receiving behavioral health services. This will result in a more enjoyable and fulfilling work environment with increased job satisfaction. Increased job satisfaction leads to improved staff retention, which also has advantages for residents who do not need to become familiar with new caregivers regularly.
Integrating Behavioral Health Services
Behavioral health services can transform an assisted living facility and help set it apart from its competitors. It can make the difference between the community barely surviving or thriving in a competitive market.
If your facility is not yet offering behavioral health care to residents, consider joining forces with an experienced partner.
TrueCare™’s behavioral health program is designed to help assisted living facilities. Led by thoroughly trained and licensed mental health professionals, the program starts by assessing the behavioral health of current residents.
Identifying those at risk from mental health challenges is essential to treating them. At the same time, establishing excellent behavioral health habits can help prevent conditions like depression and anxiety.
Good habits help residents deal with changes like moving into assisted living itself or changes to their physical health. It is hard to overestimate the positive effects a comprehensive behavioral health program can have on assisted living facilities, residents, and teams.