Aging and Mental Health
In a conversation last week, we were discussing people over the age of 70. After a long discussion about life events, family history, face-to-face interactions, and careful analysis of symptoms, we concluded that we do not know any 70-year-old, at least in our family and friends, who is not severely depressed. While one could attempt to empathize, I found it difficult to be in the shoes of someone who might have experienced more deaths, heartaches, medical issues, life transitions, and unanticipated circumstances than I could imagine.
According to Census 2017, there are 47.8 million people in US who are over the age of 65. This group accounted for 14.9 percent of the total population. The age 65 and older population grew 1.6 million from 2014. It just got me thinking about the mental health implications of individuals over the age of 65. Statistically, individuals over the age of 65 will have had more positive as well as negative experiences compared to individuals who are younger. Perhaps many people over the age of 65 are well-adjusted, healthy, and not depressed, and it is likely that life might not have thrown many curve balls their way. Regardless, I have respect for these individuals’ experiences and I wonder about their life quality and the way they have made meaning out of their experiences. It is overwhelming to think about everything these people might have gone through in their life, that over time has become an ode to both resilience and the extent of suffering.
Many factors/issues could play a part in a person’s mental health as they age. Some of these factors could be:
Loss of a spouse /parents/ Siblings/ Friends/ Family
Death is inevitable, sadly, it is the only constant in life. As people age, they might experience more and more losses. Even though losses become more frequent and inevitable with time, they may not be any less painful. Grief does not discriminate and a person over the age of 65 also grieves. Loss of someone close, for someone after the age of 65 can be difficult and might serve as a reminder of their own mortality. Yes, people who are over the age of 65 could make new friends, but losing relationships that have lasted all their life could be difficult to replace. They might also experience loneliness, fear, sadness, and anger as alternate reactions to grief.
Cognition declines with age. With increasing difficulties with recognition, recall, learning, processing speed, and motor activities, it could be frustrating or depressing to engage in activities that were once easy or manageable.
Loss of self
Our self is a combination of what we believe we are and what others’ think of us. With deteriorating cognition and increased loneliness, it can be tiring/difficult to continuously reform the idea of one’s self.
Decreasing value in the work-force and in the household.
Even though an older individual might be healthy, cognitively sound, and skillful, they are often not prioritized in the workforce. Many companies choose to hire young professionals that might be able to spend a longer time in the company. In a household sometimes, an older person might go from being a hands-on-grandma/grandpa to someone who needs assistance themselves. It is extremely painful, and hurtful to feel like one is not able to offer the same value as their younger self, a reminder of their age with its short-comings.
Gap in understanding technology
A 35-year-old finds it difficult these days to keep up with their children’s’ snapchat and Instagram accounts. Could you imagine the plight of someone older? While innovations in technology is bringing the world closer, it is continuing to distance grandparents with their grandkids even further. Even in the workforce, more and more jobs need computer skills and use of specialized software trainings, that might be difficult for people who are older and have limited experience with computers.
Every group of a certain age, sexuality, culture, religion, and nationality might have their share of problems. This was an attempt to highlight and anticipate the mental health issues of the elderly as their population and age-expectancy continues to increase in US. The elderly are one of the neglected minorities in the world who need minimal emotional support to spend the rest of their life comfortably.
What can we do for the elderly we love and respect? There are little ways we could support them as they deal with aging:
Ask them what they need instead of assuming it.
Not minimize their pain
Listen to their stories, without preaching.
Give them time if you want to give them anything.
Don’t ask them what you would do, instead ask them what they would do if they could choose what to do.
Let them enjoy the remaining independence they have.
Learn your heritage from them. Chances are they are the only ones that might be able to tell you where you truly come from.
Encourage them to interact with people their age through community centers and other local organizations.
Ask them for life lessons.
Provide community resources to elderly who are in need.