Being a family caregiver can mean many things – helping with your parent’s finances, providing assistance with everyday tasks, and meeting physical health needs. But it can also mean trying to help with senior mental health issues. In fact, the Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 report found that 24% of caregivers say their senior loved one needs help with emotional or mental health issues. Improving mental health means improving the overall quality of life, so it’s important to know what some common senior mental health issues are, and how being part of a senior living community can help in ways that might not be possible in their current residence.
Common Senior Mental Health Concerns
Contrary to what you may have heard, mental health disorders are not a typical part of aging. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that only about 20% of people age 55 and older experience some form of mental health concern. The most common of these include anxiety, mood disorders such as depression, and cognitive impairment.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is the most common form of anxiety among older adults. GAD is characterized by persistent, excessive worry that’s difficult to control. It’s more than worrying about a specific stressor or for a short period of time. GAD is diagnosed when someone can’t control their worry for more days than not for at least six months, and they have three or more symptoms. It’s worth noting that most anxiety in older adults is often associated with a traumatic event such as an acute illness or a fall
Signs and symptoms of GAD include:
• Feeling nervous, irritable or on edge
• Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
• Having an increased heart rate
• Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation), sweating and/or trembling
• Feeling weak or tired
• Difficulty concentrating
• Having trouble sleeping
• Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
How can senior living help?
• Senior living communities are physically designed to be safer environments for residents. Wider hallways, support rails, grab bars, low or no thresholds, fewer stairs, adequate lighting – all work together to help prevent falls and allow residents to move freely and more independently around the community. Reducing the fear of falling can help reduce anxiety levels.
• Having access to fitness classes and physical and occupational therapy means residents can more easily strengthen muscles, improve balance and reduce the risk of falls and injury. Physical activity also improves mood and can reduce stress and anxiety.
• Many communities offer spiritual support, counseling, grief and support groups, or psychiatric services, which can all help your loved one navigate underlying issues that may contribute to their anxiety disorder.
While older adults may be at more risk of developing it, depression isn’t considered a normal part of aging. For seniors, depressive symptoms tend to manifest as the result of health problems, grief, or social isolation. The CDC says that depression can adversely affect and complicate other chronic diseases. Older adults with depression use more medication, visit the doctor and emergency room more often, and stay longer in the hospital. And almost half of older adults with depression also meet the criteria for anxiety.
Symptoms will vary from person to person, but here are some of the more common signs of depression in seniors:
• Feelings of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness
• Fatigue/lack of energy
• Having a hard time concentrating or remembering things
• Sleep disruption – either too much or too little sleep
• Feeling irritable, nervous or guilty for no apparent reason
• Body aches and pains, or headaches
• Digestive problems/abdominal cramps
• Changes in appetite
• Thoughts of suicide
How can senior living help?
• Communities offer opportunities for social connection every day. Through planned activities, classes, social programs, volunteer opportunities and outings, residents can easily find people with similar interests. Communal dining venues offer another way to meet people, and having peers as neighbors means there’s always someone who’s there to be a friend.
• As with anxiety, physical activity can improve depression, and having professional resources available means residents don’t have to go without support or treatment.
• Depression can often follow an illness or injury, or be associated with other chronic health issues. Having access to quality health care and rehabilitation can help improve or manage their physical condition, which can in turn improve the depression.
Thirty-two percent of caregivers report their care recipient has memory problems, and 26% say their loved one has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. More than occasional memory lapses, these types of cognitive impairments make it harder for someone to take care of themselves, and they can become a danger to themselves.
Signs that your loved one has more serious memory issues include:
• Memory loss that impacts daily life. They may be forgetting things they recently learned, asking repeatedly for the same information or relying on others to remember things they usually handle themselves.
• Difficulty planning and solving problems. They may lose track of monthly bills, have a harder time concentrating or making plans, or take much longer to do things they’ve done before.
• Forgetting how to do familiar tasks. This could include having trouble making a sandwich or managing their budget, forgetting the rules of a familiar game, or not remembering how to drive to a favorite place.
• Personality changes. They may be more confused, suspicious or fearful. They may also get upset more easily and lash out in anger, or they could withdraw and self-isolate.
How can senior living help?
• Memory care is a specialized form of senior living designed to provide the best possible quality of life for seniors with Alzheimer’s’ or other forms of dementia or memory loss. Residents live in a safe, secure environment and participate in meaningful programs and social activities designed specifically to engage those with memory loss.
• Living in a memory care community provides regular daily routines, helping residents find order and predictability, which reduces anxiety and makes it easier for them to navigate their world.
• Staff members get to know residents – what they like and don’t like, what their schedule preferences are, and how they best communicate. So when something changes, it can be noticed sooner, leading to better care and outcomes. Staff are also trained on how to manage behavioral problems, such as acting out, in positive, affirming ways.
As a caregiver, you want the best for your loved one, and that includes their mental health. So if you have concerns about your loved one, talk to their doctor or care provider to get a diagnosis. Once you have that, you can make a plan so they can get the best treatment and care possible. If you’d like to start exploring how senior living could help your loved one’s mental well-being, you can find a community near you by using the locator tool here.