In the past few years, our society has become more open about mental health. While the topic is less taboo now, most of the attention surrounding mental health focuses on how it affects younger people, leaving older populations in the dark about these issues. We need to remember that the elderly experience mental illness just the same. In fact, they are vulnerable to more than just dementia and Alzheimer’s—the CDC states that about 7 million American adults aged 65 and older experience depression annually. The unique risk factors that seniors face make them a high-risk group to mental illness. The better we understand the mental health of our aging loved ones, the better we can support them in living a happy and healthy senior life.
Senior Struggles: Loneliness and Isolation
Isolation and loneliness are two similar but distinct things. Isolation is a lack of social interaction, while loneliness refers to the unpleasant feelings that come with that lack of interaction. Seniors living at home alone are vulnerable to experiencing one or both of these problems, and both can have a negative impact on their mental and physical health.
Seniors who live alone have always been prone to loneliness and isolation, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these problems. Even though restrictions have been lifted, many still feel isolated and lonely today. The elderly face a number of other hurdles that can make them feel alone, such as
- Disabilities that impact mobility, hearing, or vision that hinder them from getting out of the house and interacting with others
- Having lost a spouse
- Living far away from family
- Having little knowledge of or access to technology, making them unable to connect with others remotely
How do Loneliness and Isolation Impact Seniors’ Physical Health?
The connection between mental and physical health is a strong one: if the mind is unhealthy, its problems can trickle down to the body. Seniors struggling with isolation and/or loneliness are at greater risk of developing heart disease, weakened immune function, high blood pressure, depression, and cognitive decline according to the National Institute on Aging. Aging adults need the company of others at this point in their lives more than ever to maintain their physical and mental well-being.
Depression: Can Seniors Experience it Too?
Depression is a serious mental illness characterized by feelings of persistent sadness or “emptiness,” hopelessness, loneliness, fatigue or lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, sleeping too much or too little, and increased or decreased appetite.
Depression, like any other mental illness, is not just a problem young people face. Similar to loneliness and isolation, seniors are actually more prone to developing depression, especially if they struggle with chronic health conditions like cancer. Living alone puts them at even greater risk: because isolation and loneliness are particularly common among seniors, so is depression.
How can I Help My Aging Loved One?
Each one of us can take the first step in supporting the mental well-being of our elderly loved ones by reaching out: pay them a visit or give them a call to see how they are doing. Checking in and asking what you can help with can go a long way in making them feel seen and heard.
New York City is especially rich in mental health resources for all kinds of people, including seniors. Medicare and NY Medicaid both cover many psychotherapy services, and there are plenty of therapists in the city who specialize in mental care for elders.
There are a number of organizations that advocate for and support those struggling with mental illness in the NYC community. Just one example is Fountain House, a nonprofit that helps all kinds of people suffering mentally live better lives located at 425 W 47th St, New York, NY 10036. They serve individuals of all ages with severe mental illness, but have a significant amount of resources specifically for seniors. Sharing these resources with your loved one is a big first step in helping them combat whatever it is they are struggling with.
How Assisted Living can Help
Assisted living communities are specially designed to support and empower seniors mentally and physically. Professional and caring staff members are there to help with activities of daily living. Even the buildings are constructed with seniors in mind: wheelchair-accessible hallways, elevators and stairlifts, and walk-in bathtubs not only make life safer, but let seniors keep their independence by making it easier for them to get around on their own.
Perhaps most importantly, assisted living communities provide opportunities for seniors to interact with others on a daily basis. They offer social and recreational resources so that residents can connect with and share activities that they enjoy with others their age. Residents also eat meals together and can take group exercise classes, giving both benefits of social interaction and physical nourishment. Assisted living communities offer invaluable support for seniors’ mental health. Some communities even offer psychological or psychiatric services in-house.
As mental health becomes a more openly discussed topic, we need to keep in mind that all kinds of people experience mental illness, young and old. If your aging loved one is struggling with mental illness and needs guidance, or if you think that assisted living is the next step, contact Teres Rodney at TRodney@youroasisadvisor.com to learn about resources and assisted living options in NYC. At Oasis, we help you find the best senior care for you so you can thrive and live a happy, healthy life as you age.