Mental illness has long been a taboo topic in our society—but even more so when it comes to older adults. While ageism influences many to assume it’s just “normal” to be sad when we get closer to end of life, the truth remains that depression has become one of the greatest preventable epidemics to hit the aging population. So, why aren’t we talking about it?
Research shows depression is the seventh most common chronic condition in assisted living facilities, affecting nearly 30 percent of residents. The National Council on Aging says it’s as prevalent as heart failure in aging adults—so prevalent that it’s led to “disturbingly high” levels of suicide. In fact, although adults over 65 make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 20 percent of suicide-related deaths. And yet, currently, the screening and treatment of depression or mental disorders in assisted living communities is not consistently mandated. Imagine if the facilities caring you did not consistently monitor your blood pressure, cholesterol, or diabetes. In many cases, that’s exactly what is happening when it comes to depression and mental illness—to our great detriment.
More needs to be done to keep us healthy—and happy—in our second phase of life. The following are just a few things we can all do to increase our longevity in the face of depression and mental illness.
Acknowledge the problem. First, acknowledge that depression is not a normal part of aging. It is a health condition that needs to be addressed like any other, from high blood pressure to cancer. Indeed, depression in older adults can double the risk of cardiac disease, and research shows that when nursing home patients suffer both physical illness and depression, the chance of death is significantly increased. Accept the problem for what it is: a preventable chronic health issue.
Talk about it. When my grandfather—a muscular WWII vet and former semi-pro football player—became depressed, it was clear to me and everyone around us. Once a perfectionist, he didn’t just stop mowing his lawn—he was adamant that no one else help with it. He no longer took pride in the things he used to care about. Family and caregivers share a responsibility to notice these changes in personality and interests and discuss them openly, without shame or judgment. Numerous simple screening tests for depression are available online. Don’t be afraid of the words, “Have you considered suicide? Have you thought of ways to do it?” They might be hard to say, but they could save a life.
Advocate. Many assisted living facilities today do not properly train employees or residents to recognize or treat depressive symptoms. Make sure you chooses one that does. Says memory care specialist Judy Berry, “New places opening are boasting ice cream parlors and indoor movie theaters without increasing the direct care staff ratios that are critical to assisting seniors with dementia to use such facilities. Persons in memory care thrive, first and foremost, when their emotional needs are met, and they are treated and respected as valuable purposeful human beings.” Pressure owners and operators to put more money into higher staff ratios, ongoing training, and support, rather than more building amenities.
Push for new models. Only 2,000 of the 16,000 nursing homes in the United States have less than 50 beds, and most have more than 100. While small-house models like The Green House Project don’t always draw the same major investments—or monthly profits—larger ones do, they offer more opportunities for personal interaction, and the chance for caregivers to get to know residents more intimately. Other models welcoming mixed-age MS and ALS patients are also a good option for helping residents feel like people—not “old people.” Push community owners to make healthful outcomes—not income—the primary goal of their communities.
By law, care facilities can only welcome patients they can truly support. But when mental health is not part of the resident pre-screening process, that’s impossible to know. Communities need to take responsibility to screen, train, and support residents for all their health needs—both physical and mental—and family and friends need to be ready to make sure it happens. Depression does not need to be a normal part of aging. It’s up to all of us to acknowledge—and address—the risk.
Anouk van Noord says
Hello, I am an AGING 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. Mental illness is definitely something society should be more aware of among our elderly. I liked your post because it doesn’t just jumble up facts and saying that something has to change. Instead, you provide good, supportive ideas on how to actually change it. I loved your idea to increase the longevity to face depression and mental illness by advocating for training for the staff and nurses of assisted living facilities. As you said, most nursing homes in the United States have more than 100 beds. By training the staff in these facilities, a large audience would be reached. By supporting these factors in the big and small nursing homes, could reduce the mental illnesses. In our Aging 320 class, we have talked a lot about mental illness and its causes and effects. We learned about how depression in older adults often stays undetected and how adequate treatment is often not received. Depression could lead or could make a person more prone to many more health problems, which could make a person’s life more challenging. Therefore, depression is important to be acknowledged or even prevented when possible. In class, we also learned how other factors such as exercise, a healthy diet, and an improved social environment can help cope with the illness, or lead to a decrease of it and can help prevent it for others. Depression should be taken seriously at all ages, especially for our elderly.
James Gielen says
Hello, I am an Aging 320 student at the Erikson School of Aging. Mental illness is something that I think people need to be more aware of. I chose this blog because depression is a problem that a few people very close to me have struggled with. Depression is something that people just look past because someone may say, “oh just cheer up.” But this is truly a disease and needs to be treated more seriously. This relates to topics we have discussed in class as we have talked about ways to cope with aging diseases and I believe a lot of the ways to treat or cope with depression could be exercise, eating healthier foods, and being more involved with your community.
Currently, I am an AGNG 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. I was very intrigued by your post as relates to what we have discussing throughout our class. With mental illnesses being a main topic I wanted to read your post about how depression in the aging population need to be stopped. This topic relates heavily to me as my grandma was diagnosed with depression at an older age and then developed dementia. The doctors said that the two did not correlate but after taking these aging classes it is clear to see that the two do coincide with one another. Considering your point about screenings and treatments in assisted living communities is not a mandatory thing is very worrisome. David Haber (2016) stated, that by 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disabilities worldwide. With that in mind, I believe that depression needs to be taken more serious and should be monitored by nursing home and assisted living centers. The patient or individual also needs to play a role in acknowledging that they have depression so that they can receive help. In my opinion, society needs to raise this problem so that more people are aware of the statistics and ways that they can go about and receive treatment.
Haber, D. (2016). Health Promotion and Aging, Seventh Edition : Practical Applications for Health Professionals (Vol. Seventh edition). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company
Brooke H says
Hi, I am a student at the Erickson School of Aging. In our AGING 320 course, we have talked a lot about mental illnesses and especially about depression among older adults. This blog resonates with me because depression can lead to disease, physical decline, and disability. When it comes to older adults, chronic medical conditions, pain, loss of functional independence, and difficulty adapting to changing circumstances within the home, or family, or living conditions are the major causes for depression. If an older adult is already struggling with physical disabilities, depression will only make it worse so improving mental health is very important to me because it will greatly improve their quality of life, so assisted living communities should educate their employees on depression and the signs to help treat and prevent severe depression among older adults. There should be mandatory screenings for mental illnesses in assisted living communities because it is hard enough to adapt to the changing body and abilities as an older adult, I feel that improving mental health will increase overall happiness and enjoyment of life which is extremely important as people age.
Victoria Mahaney says
Hello, I am an Aging 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. I agree with you that depression is a real and serious issue among older adults that does often go unnoticed or unchecked. It isn’t a normal process in someone’s life and to ignore it can lead to very serious issues such as death. I have had first hand experience with this in some of my family members as well and agree that its heart breaking to watch and that we need to help them. More people should consider places such as the Green House Project because it offers a more of a home life where older adults can have privacy in their own room and choose what they do and what they eat daily making them feel like they are just an ordinary person that they matter because they do. This could help older adults with depression. Other options for helping with depression include exercising, possible cognitive behavioral therapy, and most importantly social support. People need to be more educated on the topic of depression. They need to know the signs of depression so that they can identify if a person has depression and they need to know what they could do to help that individual. The amount of deaths that have been linked to depression in unreasonably high when there are simple things that we can do to help prevent them.
Hello, I am an Aging 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. I agree that mental illness is a topic that we need to talk about. Depression is a serious issue that should not just be considered a normal part of aging. Depression is something that is so often overlooked, even though it is hurting so many people. It is something that can be, and needs to be, addressed. In class we learned about depression and how it can be helped with exercise, though the most effective treatment is a combination of medication and therapy.
Matthew C. says
Hello, I am a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and I am enrolled in AGNG 320. I agree that we should continue to advocate for those who can not speak up for themselves or may feel that their voice isn’t being heard. Whilst we often focus on the youth or middle age adults with depression, I think that we often overlook the fact that depression effects nearly one-third of residents in assisted livings and is as common as diabetes or high cholesterol in older adults. As troublesome as these facts are, it is our responsibility as a society to ensure adequate mental health treatment options are available and provided for all people, regardless of gender, race, and economic status.
Aspen Care says
Often a cargiver is not aware of such points which are mentioned in your post . Your valuable inputs will be beneficial to all caregiver as well as elder who are unaware of it. Thanks you.
Giovanni Carlo says
Maybe some caregivers did not bother to reach out to them and communicate them properly since some caregivers just work for the pay did not work for dedication and empathy, but not at all some are really care so that makes them an angel
Iram C says
I am an Aging 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging and I agree that depression has become one of the greatest preventable epidemics to hit the aging population. I believe depression in older adults is often underrecognized and undertreated. This is a health problem that needs to be addressed just like any other health condition. I believe caregivers at an assisted living often mix depression and anxiety, and sometimes, they mix depression with the symptoms of the medication the patient may be on. Improving knowledge and attitudes concerning depression in older adults is extremely important. There should be training programs for nurses who assist older adults with depression. This will help improve depression detection, treatment and help monitor depression. In my Aging course, I have learned that the most common and effective treatment for depression would be a combination of medication and exercise as well as therapy. Exercise may be effective as an antidepressant medication in treating some cases of depression in older adults but medication may initiate a more rapid response. (Haber, 123) Depression is not a normal part of aging and it’s a serious topic which needs more attention because the chances of death may increase and some may even consider suicide. Our health care professionals need to be fully educated on this topic and help support the elderly that are going through this phase in their lives.
Rabbia, S Choudary says
I am a student in a AGNG 320 Course at the Erickson School of Aging. Depression in aging adults is a topic that we have consistently discussed in our course. It is true that depression is a topic that is not as widely addressed as it should be. In my course I have learned that there are not enough health care workers with geriatric certifications and this could be tied into a possible reason why depression is not acknowledged like it should be. Aside from this, I agree about the steps that need to be taken with this issue such as talking about it because that is a starting point to work on treating depression. Furthermore, it is essential that health care providers are properly trained when working with those that have depression so they do not make things worse but can behave in a way that is sensitive to the older adults.
Liz Zemke says
The commentary was rather than Remember Me, use Know Me……my husband died with Alzheimer’s Disease 4 years ago……and believe me, I Knew Him inside and out. But I agree with Remember Me because I think it is important to remember the abilities, knowledge, skills, attributes that the person with Alzheimer’s had and “lost” ….those things that “made” the man that we knew……not the person that we know with end-stage Alzheimer’s……………………….
Jess Stonefield says
This a beautiful insight, thank you!
Joseph Smith says
Depression is a problem many seniors, especially the ones who stay alone at home or seniors who have retired from their daytime jobs. Seniors who are depressed becomes prone to several diseases too. Therapy can help but to a certain extent.
Jess Stonefield says
Very valid point, thank you!
Annemarie Manners says
You are 100% correct – I have worked in aged care facilities and see depressed people all the time and if care staff are encouraged to treat residents with respect and dignity and to actually “connect” with them and build relationships then this will go a long way toward relieving depression!
Jess Stonefield says
Thank you, Annemarie! I am in full agreement!