Why is Geriatric Mental Health a Less Discussed Issue?
Debunking associated myths and beliefs.
Mental health issues in the elderly are more often than not treatable. Unfortunately, this is not the popular opinion. As the geriatric population is on the rise, their mental, as well as physical healthcare, needs significant attention. However, their healthcare is often viewed as a personal challenge of the families and caretakers.
If stigmatising mental health wasn’t enough, there is a huge amount of stereotyping directed towards ageing. Consequently, geriatric mental health is misunderstood, stigmatised, neglected and even treated improperly.
Many older adults are at the risk of developing mental disorders, neurological disorders or substance use problems in addition to age-related physiological issues. Over 20% of the adults aged 60 and more suffer from some mental or neurological disorder and 6.6% of all disability among people over 60 years is attributed to mental and neurological disorders. Anxiety disorders affect 3.8% of the older population, substance use problems affect almost 1% and around a quarter of deaths due to self-harm are among people aged 60 or above.
These issues are under-identified by healthcare professionals and are not taken seriously by families and patients due to the stigma, which prevents them from seeking immediate help.
Numerous myths have risen due to societal perceptions regarding geriatric mental health. This article aims to list and debunk the most common ones.
Myth 1: Dementia is a normal part of the ageing process
It is widely believed that as people age, senility sets in and this is considered normal. This myth has left a large number of elderly people undiagnosed because family members have not paid enough attention to the symptoms. Besides, loss of memory may not always translate to dementia and there might be other causal factors that should be looked into (such as sudden onset of depression or death of a family member). At times, even a stroke or vascular dementia could be the cause of lack of memory.
Myth 2: The risk of Alzheimer’s cannot be reduced
The risk of Alzheimer’s can, in fact, be reduced by keeping oneself physically and mentally active. There is a wide range of factors that contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s and the controllable ones can be modified. As we age, diabetes, hypertension, smoking, obesity etc. can take a massive toll on us and prevent the preservation of our cognitive skills. Keeping a steady track on one’s overall health can definitely make a difference.
Myth 3: Depression is more common among older adults
As a matter of fact, depression is much more common among young and middle-aged adults. It is a misconception that depression occurs as we age. However, it is true that depression can be much more severe among older adults and may worsen at the onset of dementia. It is also believed that depression cannot be treated in the elderly which is untrue. With timely and adequate treatment, symptoms of depression in older adults can be significantly reduced.
Myth 4: Substance Abuse is not common among the elderly
This is a popular myth as people have certain set preconceived notions regarding the elderly and substance use among that population. Substance abuse is a steadily growing problem. It is also a product of depression among older adults. This issue is not identified enough among them and hence does not receive the attention it needs. Alcoholism among the older population is widely prevalent. There are also a large number of hospitalisations due to the overdose of substance abuse as well as heart attacks caused by abuse.
Myth 5: Older adults are difficult to treat
This myth results due to the notion that older adults are adamant to stick to their guns and hence there is no use in trying to bring about a change. Most of the family members of the patient do not make sincere attempts to get help for their deteriorating mental health and blame it on the elderly’s rigidity. This is not the case as it has been seen that there can be a good level of flexibility and co-operation displayed by older adults.
Overall, these myths only have negative consequences. Multiple warning signs are either missed or overlooked in the process and the mental health of the patient only worsens. To top it all, they are often underdiagnosed. All these factors have, often, led to premature deaths among the elderly.
Advocates, policymakers, and healthcare professionals must realise that mental health issues in the geriatric population need to be carefully handled and considered. Evidence-based diagnostic tools should be utilised to ensure correct intervention. Families must be educated about the facts and briefed about the appropriate ways to deal with their relative’s mental health. A dynamic population that, contrary to popular belief, still has much to contribute — must receive the care and treatment they rightly deserve.
Feature Image Credit: Avgust Chech on Unsplash
Shruti Venkatesh is a Research Associate (Mental Health) at One Future Collective.