Mental illness affects an estimated 20 percent of people older than 55 and up to 95 percent of people living in skilled nursing residences. Shame, fear and misdiagnosis result in a third of those patients receiving no treatment. Most mental illnesses affecting seniors can be treated, but physical symptoms can mask psychological issues.
Mental illness in seniors typically falls into three major categories: dementia, depression and anxiety.
Dementia is not an inescapable fact of aging; only about 10 percent of people older than 65 in the United States suffer from the condition. Many dementia cases result from complications from Parkinson’s disease and other physical illnesses, including strokes and high blood pressure. More than half of seniors with dementia in the United States suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.
Depression and anxiety
Although depression is the mental condition most often affecting people older than 65, it can be difficult to diagnose. Symptoms of depression — confusion, lack of concentration and social withdrawal — appear similar to those of dementia. More than 6.5 million Americans older than 65 suffer from depression.
Another common mental illness among seniors, anxiety disorder, can be masked by physical symptoms, including pain in the abdomen. Treatment of such physical problems often returns a patient to a normal mental state.
With other mental illnesses, symptoms can also appear similar to those of physical illnesses. For example, changes in appetite, aches and pains, tiredness, constipation and other physical ailments can all indicate psychological illness that can be addressed through behavior management.
To help seniors suffering from mental illness, caregivers and family members should be aware of common symptoms and consider a consultation with a geriatric mental health professional. For many seniors, correct treatment can provide many years of enjoying life.