Shining the Spotlight on Surging Elderly Mental Illness

Elderly mental health is extremely important to a senior’s overall well-being. Unfortunately, many of today’s seniors are struggling to get adequate help and support. Physicians, caregivers, and family members should have concern for geriatric mental health issues

Mental illness in the elderly often gets confused with symptoms of aging. But, there are important differences that can signal a more serious mental health condition. Caregivers should understand the symptoms of mental illness and learn how best to support senior mental health.

Prevalence Of Mental Health Issues In Today’s Seniors

All ages can suffer from mental health issues. But, those 55 or older are more at risk for mental health concerns than the younger population. In fact, 20% of people in this age range suffer from some type of mental health concern. Anxiety or depression are among the most common.

Men over 85 are most at risk for suicide than younger generations or women. Additionally, about 45 out of every 100,000 elders commit suicide, which is most often the result of an elderly mental health issue.

The facts are scary, and it gets more concerning as our population ages. By 2050, it’s estimated that the world’s elderly population will double its current size. This leaves more seniors susceptible to mental health issues.

The Big Problem

The biggest problem with mental illness in the elderly is, perhaps, the things we don’t understand about it. There are often stigmas associated with mental health. For example, portrayals we see on television or in movies make those with mental illness seem frightening. This leads to a lack of desire to talk about mental illness, and instead, it gets swept under the rug.

Seniors, additionally, have to confront ageism. People often dismiss concerning behaviors in seniors as effects of aging. In reality, there are important differences between aging and elderly mental health concerns. Not knowing the differences can seriously affect a senior’s well-being.

The Difference Between Mental Illness And Aging

It’s true that some symptoms of mental illness and aging can overlap. But, it’s important to be aware of differences between age and an elderly mental illness. If symptoms aren’t caught early enough, a senior is at high risk for severe anxiety, depression, or even suicide.

Many seniors don’t feel comfortable speaking with their primary care physicians about their concerns. Instead, they fear their doctors downplaying their symptoms. Of those who do speak up, about 50% of mental health disorders in the elderly still go diagnosed.

Anxiety and depression are common in seniors. But, doctors frequently pass symptoms off as nothing more than normal aging. Early detection of mental health issues in seniors is vital to receiving proper care and treatment.

Symptoms Of Mental Illness In Seniors

Symptoms of mental illness and regular aging may blur in seniors. But, you can typically think of concerning mental illness symptoms as exaggerated aging symptoms.

Forgetfulness, for example, is common with aging. But, continuous memory loss that interferes with regular tasks is a concern.

Important symptoms of mental illness in seniors may include, but are not limited to:

  • Changes in a regular care routine, like lack of concern for appearance
  • Signs of severe memory loss, like repeatedly asking the same questions
  • Significant mood changes, like exhibiting more worry or confusion than before
  • Lack of social desire
  • Severe weight gain or loss
  • Changes in sleep patterns, lack of energy, or extreme fatigue

If you care for a senior and notice any of the above symptoms, it’s time to talk to the doctor. These are just general symptoms to look for. But, you should also take note of specific symptoms in those who might suffer from anxiety and depression. These can look a bit different.

Anxiety In Seniors

It’s normal for anyone to worry, but anxiety goes beyond a controlled worry to a consuming, uncontrollable fear. Anxiety disorders take on several forms, like social phobia or panic disorder, and affect about 15% of seniors every year.

Some common symptoms of anxiety include, but are not limited to:

  • Fatigue and changes in sleep patterns
  • Difficulty concentrating and remembering information
  • Consistently feeling on-edge
  • Tense muscles and frequent headaches
  • Feeling out of control of the worry
  • Difficulty talking to or being around others
  • Frequent nausea

Seniors who had more stressful events occur through their lives may be more at risk, but anxiety can affect anyone.

Depression In Seniors

People often think of depression as a common symptom of aging. Instead, it’s a serious condition of its own. It impacts everyday life for a senior, physically, socially, and emotionally. Depression is one of the common elderly mental disorders that often goes undiagnosed.

Here are common depression symptoms to look for:

  • Weight gain or loss; overeating or loss of appetite
  • Consistent pessimism or talking down to oneself; lack of confidence
  • Low energy, changing sleep patterns, and fatigue
  • Confusion, difficulty remembering details, and difficulty concentrating
  • Decreased interest in past hobbies
  • Continuous pains, like stomach aches, cramping, or headaches, with no underlying medical cause
  • Talk of suicide or a suicide attempt

If you suspect a loved one of living with depression or anxiety, talk to her about your concerns and offer to go with her to the doctor to get help. Most importantly, let her know you’re available to talk to, so she knows she’s not alone.

What Causes Senior Mental Illness?

There’s no exact known cause of elderly mental health issues. However, experts believe that several factors play a role in the prevalence of symptoms in seniors.

The elderly face significant decreases in income when they reach retirement age. They also often face health issues that cause them to become less independent than they once were. These lifestyle changes add up over time. Without proper support, they can quickly escalate to anxiety, depression, or other forms of mental illness.

Treatments For Senior Mental Illness

Fortunately, there are several treatments for elderly mental health issues, regardless of how early a patient receives a diagnosis. The most common treatments include:

  • Psychological interventions and therapies
  • Prescription medications
  • Exercise
  • Support Groups

Psychological Interventions And Therapies

When a senior suffers from mental illness, it’s important to retrain the brain’s way of thinking. Then, his thoughts won’t continue to spiral out of control.

Psychological interventions and therapies do just that. They allow the senior to regain control over his emotions and get back to the life he once enjoyed.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a method of retraining thoughts and behaviors to be more productive. For example, a therapist may work with a patient to provide him some new, useful skills. These skills help him feel accomplished, build his confidence and battle depression.

Those with anxiety might benefit from exposure therapy. This therapy involves a therapist gradually building up a patient’s ability to confront his fears by exposing him to them. This therapy usually combines stressful situations with stress-reducing methods to help balance fears.

Prescription Medications

Doctors sometimes prescribe antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to seniors. These can help reduce symptoms of mental illness.

But, these medications can interfere with medications for other conditions. So, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons.

Studies show that medications can especially help seniors from relapsing into depression.


Mild to moderate exercise can help lift the moods of those with mental illness when used as a long-term treatment. Studies show that those with moderate anxiety or depression symptoms benefit the most from consistent exercise. Additionally, regular exercise can help prevent further relapse, much like medications.

Just keep in mind that any exercise regimen should be approved by the family’s physician and proper safety precautions are in place.

Support Groups

Regularly attending a support group can help seniors feel included. They’re good places to share their struggles, connect with others who understand and find resources. Support groups can also make seniors feel more comfortable talking about their problems than doing so with a therapist or doctor.

The Importance Of Social And Emotional Support

About 12% of seniors 65 and older say that they don’t get enough social or emotional support. Of this same age group, 6.5% say they experience frequent mental distress. These statistics are scary. Our seniors are saying they don’t get enough help to deal with the stress they’re under.

If your loved one is suffering from mental illness, it’s important to get involved. Do so in a way that comforts her.

Offer to go with her to support groups or community event. Look for ones that provide social opportunities for people her age.

Also, when you’re worried, speak up. Sometimes you are the voice your loved one needs to create a better, healthier future. The more support a senior gets, the likelier she is to open up about her struggles and concerns.


Mental health is crucial to the well-being of our seniors. But, they often lack the support needed to get adequate help. Knowledge of common mental illness symptoms and treatments helps us get seniors early intervention.

Have you had a loved one who’s experienced mental illness? Feel free to share your experience and helpful tips in a comment below.

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Stevie Compango, CNSC, CPT

Stevie is Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer for the past 10 years. He specializes in mobility and chronic pain management. His methods have helped thousands of clients improve the quality of their life through movement.

Recommended Articles


  • CDC, "The State of Mental Health and Aging in America",
  • World Health Organization, "Mental health of older adults",
  • NCBI, "Mental Health Treatment Seeking Among Older Adults with Depression: The Impact of Stigma and Race",
  • Life Senior Services, " 10 Facts About Mental Health and Aging",
  • ResearchGate, "Risk factors for anxiety and depression in the elderly: A review",
  • Chicago Methodist Senior Services, "Four Early Warning Signs of Mental Illness to Watch for in Older Adults",
  • NIH, "Anxiety Disorders",