Community Blog

Mental Illness in Seniors is Growing Concern

By Debbie Humphrey

Mental health is a hot topic these days. I can’t watch the evening news or read the Tampa Bay Times without seeing reports of yet another tragic incident involving someone who is, obviously, mentally unstable. Usually, these events involve young people who make drastic, devastating decisions resulting in injuries and loss of life in school or synagogue shootings.

In my profession, I get a first-hand view of mental illness in the elderly, even though the stories unfolding before my own eyes are rarely considered newsworthy. Yes, I occasionally hear about current research into mental illnesses like Alzheimer’s, dementia and Parkinson’s disease, even though I encounter older patients who experience depression and anxiety on a frequent basis.

Contributing writer to US News & World Report, David Levine, published findings of a 2012 study conducted by the National Academy of Medicine, (formerly The Institute of Medicine), that concluded as many as, “14 to 20 percent of U.S. adults over age 65 have one or more mental health or substance use conditions. That’s about 8 million people.”

Levine continued to say that mental illness in seniors is largely “under-recognized and under-diagnosed,” which is a growing concern.

Dr. Susan W. Lehmann, clinical director of the division of geriatric psychiatry and neuropsychiatry and director of the Geriatric Psychiatry Day Hospital at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said, “Indeed, compared with younger adults and middle-aged adults, adults over age 65 were much less likely to be asked by their primary care physician if they felt tense or anxious and were much less likely to be referred by their primary care physician for mental health specialty care.” 

Furthermore, in this same report, another study of a group of seniors receiving in-home care observed as many as 23% exhibited signs of depression, with as many as 40% of those unlikely to receive treatment for their depression.

It’s true, diagnosing mental illness in the elderly is not an easy task. As we age, our sleep patterns change, our appetites wane, and our memory bank may not store as much as it used to. Are these the common effects of aging? Or are they indicative of cognitive changes resulting from declining mental health? Sometimes doctors do not probe deeply enough to explore the possibility of underlying mental issues, because seniors fighting depression often fail to share this information with their physicians.

We must remember that back in the good old days, it was taboo to discuss personal psychiatric matters with your doctor. “(It) was certainly frowned upon, so there may be a generational issue,” says Dr. Philip R. Muskin, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and a member of the American Psychiatric Association’s Scientific Program Committee.

The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation has provided a list of risk factors for mental illness in seniors to help us recognize potential probability:

  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Change of environment, like moving into assisted living
  • Dementia-causing illness (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease)
  • Illness or loss of a loved one
  • Long-term illness (e.g., cancer or heart disease)
  • Medication interactions
  • Physical disability
  • Physical illnesses that can affect emotion, memory and thought
  • Poor diet or malnutrition


Whatever the reasons behind depression or other mental conditions in the elderly, Lehman finds, “With appropriate and effective treatment, quality of life and overall functioning is improved and maintained.”

If you notice any of the following symptoms of mental conditions outlined by the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, do not hesitate to seek help! These include:

  1. Changes in appearance, dress, or home/yard maintenance
  2. Confusion, disorientation, problems with concentration or decision-making
  3. Changes in appetite, weight
  4. Prolonged depressed mood
  5. Feelings of worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, helplessness; thoughts of suicide
  6. Memory loss, especially recent or short-term memory problems
  7. Physical problems that can’t otherwise be explained: aches, constipation, etc
  8. Social withdrawal; loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable
  9. Trouble handling finances or working with numbers
  10. Unexplained fatigue, energy loss or sleep changes


Treatments may include medications or talk therapies, if the senior is willing to entertain those options. Family, friends and loved ones can help by encouraging the seniors in their lives who are demonstrating symptoms of mental illness to seek help, Lehman said.

“Speaking with the senior’s primary care provider is often the right first step,” she explains. “If specialty care is recommended, loved ones can help ensure that the individual follows through with the appointment and recommended treatment.”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, making it the perfect time to evaluate the mental health of special seniors in your life. If you live too far away or are unable to help a senior loved one you suspect may be challenged by mental illness, depression or anxiety, do not hesitate to contact me. Our compassionate caregivers are available 24/7/365 to provide transportation assistance to/from doctor and therapist appointments, as well as companionship for seniors who live alone. I am happy to offer a FREE Consultation to assess your needs and/or those of your loved one to see what we can do to help escalate their mood and quality of life!

We, at Home Helpers® Clearwater, are honored to have received the Home Care Pulse – Best of Home Care® Provider of Choice Award for 2017, 2018 & 2019. We proudly serve male and female seniors in Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor, Safety Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Holiday, New Port Richey, Trinity, Port Richey, Hudson and surrounding areas. Home Helpers®…we are Making Life Easier℠  727.942.2539


US News & World Report