Mental illness is sometimes a lifelong struggle, but it can also develop for the first time in your later years. Some older adults experience an onset of mental health symptoms that dramatically affect their day-to-day functioning. Unfortunately, the early warning signs often go unnoticed because family or friends believe the changes are a normal part of the aging process.
If you or a loved one is getting older, you should be alert for the signs of a mental health disorder. Your quality of life does not have to decrease as you age, and seeking support when you’re struggling is vital.
Risk Factors for Mental Health Disorders in Seniors
Mental illness does not discriminate, so anyone could develop a mental health disorder at any age. However, there are some risk factors that may make older adults especially vulnerable to mental health issues.
For example, seniors with Alzheimer’s or dementia are very likely to experience emotional health concerns in addition to their cognitive decline. The symptoms and effects of dementia can be extremely isolating, so depression and anxiety commonly co-occur. Similarly, chronic physical health conditions can result in mental health problems.
Older adults who are socially isolated are also at a higher risk of experiencing mental health disorders. Social interaction is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, but many seniors don’t get regular contact with family, friends, or their broader community.
6 Signs of Mental Health Issues in Seniors
Sometimes, the signs of mental health issues are obvious to the loved ones of an older adult. However, mental health symptoms can also be very subtle. Understanding the early signs can help you spot a problem before it escalates. The following are the most common warning signs and symptoms of mental illness in older adults:
1. Change in Appearance, Dress, or Hygiene
A sudden or unexplained change in appearance is almost always a sign that something is wrong. Sometimes, this change can be attributed to a decline in physical health or in cognition. In many cases, though, it results from a mental health problem. Regardless of the cause of the change, you should check in with an aging loved one if you’ve noticed that they’re not keeping up with their hygiene or appearance the way they used to.
Depression can cause a lack of energy and a loss of motivation, which makes it very difficult to keep up with your self-care tasks. Anxiety can affect your hygiene or appearance, too, especially if you’re preoccupied with your anxious thoughts or worried to leave the house. A change in appearance could also indicate a substance use problem. While you should never make assumptions about what someone is going through, you should check in with your friend or family member if they seem like they’re struggling to care for themselves.
2. Social Withdrawal or Isolation
Isolation is both a risk factor and a symptom of mental illness. In many cases, withdrawal from friends or family is the first observable sign of an emotional health problem. If your loved one used to be socially active and is now spending more time alone, they may not have the mental or emotional energy to socialize. They might not reach out to talk as much as they used to, or they may decline invitations to social gatherings. Spending time alone can be enjoyable and healthy to an extent, but being completely isolated is a red flag for seniors.
3. Loss of Interest in Hobbies
A loss of interest in preferred activities is a key symptom of depression. Hobbies are vital for older adults’ quality of life, so all seniors should have at least one activity that provides a sense of joy and purpose.
You might notice that your aging friend or relative is spending more time at home and less time participating in the community activities that they once enjoyed. If you ask them how they’ve been spending their time, they may not answer in much detail. This can be a sign that they’re struggling with a loss of motivation, low mood, or difficulty concentrating on tasks.
4. Self-criticism or Negative Comments
Some people make self-deprecating comments as a joke, not because they actually have low self-esteem. If this is a new behavior from your aging loved one, though, it might be cause for concern. Frequent self-criticism or self-deprecating remarks can be a sign of depression regardless of whether or not they’re said with humor.
5. Change in Appetite or Weight
A sudden and dramatic change in weight is one of the most visible signs of mental illness. Anxiety and depression can both cause a lack of appetite, so unexplained weight loss often occurs when someone is grappling with mental health symptoms.
In other cases, people turn to food to cope with their mental illness. Food can be a source of comfort, enjoyment, and escape from your symptoms, so overeating may provide a temporary relief. This can lead to rapid weight gain, though, which may cause other physical health problems.
6. Unexplained Physical Health Symptoms
Although mental health disorders occur in the mind, they can also cause physical symptoms. Complaints of physical health problems are especially common among older adults because seniors tend to focus more on their physical symptoms than on their emotional ones. The following are some of the most common symptoms that may indicate a mental health problem:
- Muscle tension or muscle aches
- Nausea or digestive problems
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Headaches or migraines
- Difficulty sleeping
- Shakiness or sweating
Mental Health Treatment for Seniors
If you’re concerned about the mental health of yourself or a loved one, remember that support is always available. Therapy is an excellent opportunity to keep your mental health symptoms in check and work toward living a happy, fulfilling life. Counselors use a wide variety of approaches and styles in their work, so your experience can be specifically tailored to your needs and preferences.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling provides therapy services for older adults. Our practice specializes in senior mental health, so our licensed counselors are closely familiar with the challenges you or your aging loved one may face. Contact us today to learn more about senior counseling or to connect with a therapist in your area.