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Bipolar Disorder in Older Adults

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health condition that can affect almost every aspect of your life. When treated with therapy and medication, most people with bipolar disorder find that their symptoms are manageable and that the condition doesn’t get in the way of their daily functioning. However, when untreated, bipolar disorder can be emotionally devastating.
Seniors who have bipolar disorder may have a unique experience compared to younger adults with the same illness. Understanding the signs, symptoms, and treatments for bipolar disorder can help you come to terms with your diagnosis, or it can help you support an aging loved one who’s struggling with the condition.

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder that causes alternating phases of mania and depression. A depressive episode causes low energy, feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and loss of interest in your favorite activities. It usually lasts at least a couple weeks, but some seniors experience phases of depression for much longer.
In many ways, mania is the complete opposite of depression. You feel highly motivated and energetic, and you may experience racing thoughts or difficulty concentrating. Some people with bipolar disorder feel euphoric in a manic episode, and some feel irritable or agitated. Although mania may feel good while you’re experiencing it, it can lead to risky or harmful decisions, and it’s usually followed by a depressive crash.

How Bipolar Disorder Affects Older Adults

Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness. If you’re diagnosed as a younger adult, the disorder will continue into your senior years. Some older adults have an easier time managing their symptoms as they age because they have so much experience with the condition. They’ve learned how to adjust their lifestyle to stay emotionally healthy, and they’ve collected tips and tricks from years of therapy.
Unfortunately, some older adults see their bipolar disorder worsen with age. Your senior years bring about many life transitions, such as retirement, changes in your family structure, loss of loved ones, medical diagnoses, or moving to a more accessible home. Although not all of the changes that happen in your later years are negative, any major transition can take an emotional toll. As you settle into your new normal, your mental health symptoms may start to appear again.
Untreated or unmanaged bipolar disorder also might create extra risks when you get older. Reckless and impulsive decision-making is a key sign of a manic episode, and this symptom can lead to especially serious consequences if you have limited mobility or other medical issues. For example, a senior in a manic episode may try to get behind the wheel of a car even if they no longer are able to drive safely.
Sometimes, bipolar disorder appears for the first time in older adulthood. This is known as late onset bipolar disorder, and it accounts for about 10 percent of cases in people over the age of 50. However, bipolar disorder may be under-diagnosed in seniors because mental health symptoms are often overlooked.
The process of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder can be more complicated later in life, too. Your doctors will likely want to rule out other illnesses that can affect your mood and behavior, such as hormone issues, dementia, or other neurological problems. It can be stressful to go through so many tests, but getting an accurate diagnosis is the key to getting your symptoms under control.

Signs and Symptoms

Recognizing bipolar disorder in yourself or a senior loved one can be difficult. There are some noticeable signs to look out for, but the condition can appear differently in each person who experiences it.
The following are the most common elderly bipolar symptoms:

  • Feelings of hopelessness or despair alternating with feelings of extreme happiness and excitement
  • Changes in energy level; sleeping much more or much less than usual
  • Changes in appetite
  • Making major plans or commitments but not following through with them
  • Engaging in risky or impulsive behavior, such as reckless driving or overspending
  • Frequent changes in self-image or self-esteem
  • Neglecting self-care and activities of daily living
  • Suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideation

Seniors with bipolar disorder aren’t always either manic or depressed. They may go weeks or months without any symptoms at all before a manic or depressive episode kicks in. This is one reason why bipolar disorder is such a complicated and misunderstood condition. Because the symptoms come and go and can vary so much, you or your aging loved one may feel like you’ve been “cured” of the illness when the symptoms have simply subsided for a time.

Treatments for Bipolar Disorder in Older Adults

Like many other mental health conditions, bipolar disorder is usually treated with a combination of medication and therapy. Bipolar treatment for older adults may be different than treatment for younger adults when it comes to medication, though.
Although medication tends to be effective for managing the symptoms of the condition, doctors may use special precautions when prescribing psychiatric medications to seniors. You might metabolize medicine at a different speed when you get older, so the dosage of the medication may change as you age. Additionally, seniors are more likely to take other prescription medications, so your doctor will have to make sure that there are no drug interactions.
Therapy is a very helpful tool for people of all ages with bipolar disorder. Often times, manic or depressive episodes are triggered by events in your life. With the help of therapy, you can learn to identify the patterns in your emotions and behaviors. Then, you can develop healthy coping skills so that stressful or triggering events don’t lead to a serious mental health episode.
There are many different styles and approaches to therapy that can be useful for bipolar disorder. You and your therapist can explore a variety of techniques to find the method that works best for you. One of the most common forms of treatment, especially for managing depressive symptoms, is cognitive behavioral therapy. This form of counseling helps you understand the relationship between your thoughts, your emotions, and your actions, which empowers you to change your negative thinking habits and improve your emotional state.
Couples or family therapy can also be a great experience when you’re learning to manage bipolar disorder. The condition can affect your relationship with your spouse and family, especially when you’re in the early stages of treatment. Marriage counseling provides an opportunity for you and your spouse to work together to understand your diagnosis and find healthy ways to work through conflict as a team.
Bipolar disorder in older adults is a challenging condition, but with professional support, you can live a healthy, stable life. Blue Moon Senior Counseling provides therapy for aging adults with bipolar disorder as well as other mental health concerns. Contact us today to learn more.

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