Tides of a Pandemic:
The Covid-19 pandemic brought many global and national health issues to the forefront of public and political discourse. We found ourselves learning new jargon from the worlds of epidemiology, and had to familiarize ourselves with what is the sturdiest brand of mask, or the best aroma of disinfectant spray. However one population was perhaps most disportionately affected by the pandemic – and that is older adults.
The short term effect of the pandemic on older adults was tragic. We were unequipped to handle such an eventuality, and the disease ravaged spread like wildfire through nursing homes, taking many lives too soon. However, we are only now seeing the long term effects of the pandemic on older adults. Covid-19 meant continued loneliness and social-isolation for one of the most vulnerable sectors of our society – older adults.
What the Numbers Show
Research shows that loneliness can increase the risk of dementia in older adults by up to 40%, and can lead directly to cognitive and physical decline. Even prior to the pandemic, over 20% of adults aged 60 and over suffer from a mental or neurological disorder (excluding headache disorders) and 6.6% of all disability (disability adjusted life years-DALYs) among people over 60 years is attributed to mental and neurological disorders. These disorders in older people account for 17.4% of Years Lived with Disability (YLDs).
The most common mental and neurological disorders in this age group are dementia and depression, which affect approximately 5% and 7% of the world’s older population, respectively. Anxiety disorders affect 3.8% of the older population, substance use problems affect almost 1% and around a quarter of deaths from self-harm are among people aged 60 or above. Substance abuse problems among older people are often overlooked or misdiagnosed. Mental health problems are under-identified by health-care professionals and older people themselves, and the stigma surrounding these conditions makes people reluctant to seek help.
Behind the Numbers
Mental Health issues can arise in any of us at any time, and awareness for mental-health related problems is important for all populations. However, for older adults there are many stress factors that bring on and speed up such issues. Older adults live with pain – this may be physical pain from nagging ailments and loss of function, but often can be from deep grief and loss they have experienced throughout the years. The experience of slowly losing your independence, paired with physical pain and watching as those whom you cherish pass away can be incredibly crippling.
Older adults often try to hide the symptoms of their dementia or depression, and put on a brave face so as not to burden those around them. That is why awareness is especially important when it comes to the mental health of older adults, and is an important topic for professionals and family members alike to familiarize themselves with.
How to Aid Older Adults Suffering from Mental Health Issues
The cognitive and emotional aspects of us as humans are harder to navigate than even our physical health, and the effects of mental health issues can be even more debilitating. For older adults who often live their lives in relative isolation and with pain and loss it can seem like the onset of these conditions is all but inevitable. However, there are proactive measures that can and must be taken in order to decrease the severity of, and even prevent some of these issues.
Improving education and understanding when it comes to the mental health of older adults can go a long way. Awareness allows us to notice symptoms early on, and to have the tools to address them in a proactive manner.
Being able to accurately track dementia spells or bouts of depression provides valuable information to health professionals and can aid in implementing preventative measures. This can be done manually through phone calls or in person touch points, or through data-based tracking by technological tools.
Often those aiding older adults and in direct contact with them, whether they be family members or paid caregivers are not experts in depression or dementia. Getting the right help and guidance can be life changing. Dementia experts such as Teepa Snow teach unique methods that improve the lives of older adults, and psychologists who are trained in geriatric issues can shed light on depression and how to deal with it.
The lines of the song go “Lean on me when you’re not strong, I’ll be your friend I’ll help you carry on.” Sometimes what makes a world of difference is something as simple as a friend. A daily call, weekly visit, or friendly smile can change the path for an older adult when it comes to mental health.
As we close out Mental Health Awareness Month, it is important that we pay attention to those around us who are struggling. When it comes to older adults, administering help early on can have a major effect not only on quality of life, but on longevity as well. Improving awareness and empathy, paired with employing innovative tools can make a real difference in the lives of older adults dealing with issues of Mental Health.