Most of us have seen our parents grow old; from being very active physically to being confined within the houses, from being hale and hearty to being heavily dependent on medication, finding it difficult to do even the simplest jobs owing to a decline in their physical wellbeing.

More often than not, old age is associated with only such physical changes. It is assumed that this is a part of life when one is growing old and gets physically weak. But what about their mental wellness?

In India, there has also been a conditioning that the children ought to take care of their parents in their old age However, with the increasing trend of youngsters migrating abroad for better options, there is a big number of elderly populations surviving alone. One can also find instances, when the parents live alone in one city while the children may be settled in another. We also have to take into account that in current times (Covid scenario being an exception), the longevity of life has fairly gone up with the help of medical advancement. Hence, it is imperative that we focus on the mental health wellness of our elderly too.

It has been found that an average of 20.5% adults suffer from some mental health illness or the other i.e. 17.13 million adults out of a total population of 83.58 million.

Common Mental Health problems faced by older adults

What then are the mental health issues that senior citizens face. Some of the prominent issues related to old age are dementia, depression along with anxiety disorders and substance abuse. A brief look at some of these:

  1. Dementia : According to World Health Organisation, an estimated 55 million people in the world have Dementia, which is expected to further go up to 78 million people by 2030. In India, this number is estimated at over 5.3 million, the most common cause of Dementia being Alzheimer’s. By 2030, this number is expected to rise to 7.6 million by 2030. Dementia is a progressive syndrome, in which a deterioration occurs in memory, thinking and behavior and also the ability to perform their routine activities. Often, those suffering from Dementia experience loss of memory, difficulty in communication and also mood changes. Despite symptoms being evident, they are often misunderstood as age related problem. Also, a shortage of memory clinics (for screening of dementia) leads to the condition not being diagnosed and treated.
  2. Depression : Out of the 103 million people in the age group of above 60, 30% displayed some symptoms of depression. Depression is a very common disorder among the elderly. The key symptoms of the same are persistent ‘low’ mood, anxiety, loss in energy, feeling of unworthiness, helplessness, constant fatigue, loss of interest in activities that were pleasurable earlier. While having such feelings once in a while is ok but if they persist for a longer period of time and interfere in their daily functioning, it may need intervention. However, most often such symptoms are given a miss, assuming that they are a normal part of ageing.
  3. Anxiety Disorder : This is a psychiatric disorder in which the patient tends to be in a constant state of worry about routine things, to that extent that this worry impacts their normal functioning. Such concerns may eventually lead to loss of sleep, fatigue, irritability and so on. As per studies in 2018, it was found that Anxiety Disorders were prevalent in 10.8% of the geriatric population in India.
  4. Substance Abuse: Regional studies done in the past have concluded that smoking, consumption of alcohol and tobacco chewing are common among the older adults in India. While we all are aware about the negative effects of substance abuse, it is obvious and understandable that the elderly persons are more susceptible to these negative effects. It is easy to mistake the symptoms of Substance Abuse as that of Dementia or Depression as some of them may seem the same such as Memory issues, Changes in eating and sleeping patterns, lack of interest in routine activities etc.

Common Misconceptions about Mental Health Issues among the elderly

Having seen about the prevalence of mental health disorders among the Geriatric population in India, let’s also have a look at the common misconceptions around these problems when it comes to our elderly.

  • Memory loss is common in old age.

This is a myth because while it is common to forget things once in a while, it is not a thing to be taken casually if memory loss affects one’s daily routine and way of functioning. A person’s memory loss could also be indicative of Alzheimer’s and in some cases, a loss of memory could also have been caused due to stroke. This myth prevents people from investigating further into this issue.

  • It is common for Elderly people to get Depression.

While wrinkles and grey hair may be a part of the aging process, depression is not. A youngster in his 20s has equal chances of being diagnosed with Depression as an older person in her 70s. However, one cannot deny that the severity of the problem maybe more in the person in her 70s than the guy in his 20s. Yet in case of both the patients, with proper diagnosis and timely treatment, the symptoms can definitely be reduced.

  • Addiction is not prevalent among elderly and it is the youngsters who have this problem.

The fact is that there are many elderly persons who are addicted to smoking or chewing tobacco or even consuming alcohol. Sometimes this addiction has been around for several years, leading up to the older age too and in some cases, this may be a result of depression. While there are as many hospitalisations due to substance abuse as any physical ailment like a cardiovascular disease, this condition still doesn’t get the attention and treatment it deserves.

What can be done for Mental Wellness of the Elderly?

We now know the issues around the Mental Health of older age adults and also the common misconceptions around them. How then can we help our older adults to live a healthy life, physically and emotionally.

What needs to be done is first and foremost acknowledge that the elderly people too suffer from mental health issues. Just because they are old and have lived their life, doesn’t mean they cannot have access to treatment. It is important for such persons to be able to seek help. For this the stigma around Geriatric Mental Health has to be addressed too. In a country which has about 3500+ professionals as against the required number of 13000, having a set of dedicated Geriatric Mental Health professionals is a tough task. Even Geriatric Out patient department services are available only in specific hospitals in urban areas and it is still out of reach of a majority of elderly population. Thus, it is only sensible to include geriatric healthcare in primary healthcare services. Adequate awareness, timely diagnosis, easy accessibility to professional help and implementation of appropriate policies along with training related to Geriatric healthcare can help towards dealing with the Geriatric Mental Health issues effectively.

‘This post is part of Blogchatter’s CauseAChatter

2 thoughts on “Geriatric Mental Health – Do we know enough?

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