Slater: Older adults need our help managing mental health
The U.S. Surgeon General proclaimed isolation can be just as harmful to someone’s health as smoking or lack of exercise. Image courtesy of Greenbrier.

    The number of older adults with mental health disorders is expected to nearly double by 2030. One factor exacerbating this is isolation, which more than doubles the risk of depression compared to those that do not or rarely feel lonely. The issue has become so prevalent that in May, the U.S. Surgeon General proclaimed a public health crisis of loneliness, isolation and lack of connection—adding that isolation can be just as harmful to someone’s health as smoking or lack of exercise.

    Acknowledging and supporting those with mental health issues often takes a backseat to physical health due to a myriad of issues, such as access to care, cost or stigma. But mental health conditions can exacerbate physical ones and cause substantial distress on overall health and well-being. This is even more of a problem because communities are struggling to provide adequate resources to residents who need help.

    Santa Clara County has invested substantial funds to address the long-term crisis in our communities, but part of the solution is addressing how we respond to mental health in our everyday lives as well, and calling out common misperceptions we have around mental health and older adults.

    For example, some might think it’s normal for someone to feel sad as they get older, but depression is not a natural part of aging. In fact, mental health issues in older adults often go misdiagnosed because the change in behavior is attributed to other health issues, or it takes a backseat to other conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes.

    For this reason, it is especially important for older adults or their loved ones to recognize signs that can go undetected—changes in characteristics such as weight and appetite, or sleep and fatigue issues. Excessive worry or loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyed are not normal transitions in aging and need to be addressed by a health care professional.

    As people age, retirement or living away from family can also limit social interaction. But time with familiar connections, such as neighbors or loved ones, has a big impact on overall health. This applies to everyday life, as well as during stressful times. During an emergency, older adults who evacuate with people they are close with, for example, have less mental health and cognitive impairment issues following the emergency, as well as better overall health long term.

    Santa Clara County has a wealth of resources that can help keep older adults social and engaged. The local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness offers support groups, multilingual group-therapy style programs and more. Veterans often need specific types of therapy that deal with that type of trauma. The San Jose Vet Center provides help and resources for vets and their families for free, and the United Veterans Council of Santa Clara County has a crisis hotline. In addition, the Institute on Aging Friendship Line is a wonderful resource that has been accredited by the American Association of Suicidology. Your health plan or provider may also have resources to offer.

    To improve mental health across our communities, we must also overcome the stigma that can be associated with it. People have different feelings when it comes to talking to a therapist and, for some, it can be more comfortable than talking to friends or family members. Primary care doctors or health plans can provide contact information or recommendations for local mental health providers. For those not comfortable talking to a therapist, it’s important to show respect for that perspective while not allowing it to become a barrier to optimal health.

    A first step toward reducing isolation can be engaging with a group of peers with shared interests, like a book or gardening club, or a group of people who are going through something similar. There are support groups for experiences such as losing a spouse, coping with health diagnoses such as cancer or heart disease and a myriad of other topics.

    Mental health has become a prominent issue in our country, especially among our older adult populations. Knowing the signs to look for, staying connected with friends and family and turning to the community resources available can make a big impact on immediate and long-term health.

    Kristen Slater is a licensed clinical social worker and director of clinical operations at CCA Health California.

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