Psychological Focus on Aging

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Along with rapid growth of our elderly aging parent population, we are seeing an increase in psychological problems in our elders. Attention to these is needed, both by families and caregivers. The number of people aged sixty-five and older is increasing such that within the next fourteen years this segment of our population could comprise about a fifth of the total population of the U.S. The age group of eighty and above is the fastest growing population in the world. Along with the growth rate comes an increase in the number of ailments suffered by this graying group, including primary dementia, as well as the physical problems of strokes, heart disease, and other illnesses which may affect thinking, mood, and psychological health. Psychological problems of the elderly include depression, isolation, and anxiety disorders, together with an increased risk of suicide. Those aged sixty five years and older have the highest suicide rate in the United States, when compared with other age groups.

Seventy-five percent of the elderly live in their homes or with relatives. About twenty-five percent live in nursing homes and other care facilities. Loss of ability, loss of a spouse, loss of a sense of purpose and declining competency are factors which can contribute to the problem of depression in the elderly. While medication can be very helpful, psychotherapy is also an effective method for addressing this concern. Weekly sessions, a supportive therapist, and guidance in coping with the issues facing many elders can help alleviate the sense of sadness and loss, and can provide better coping skills. For many elders, there has never been a focus on feelings or emotional difficulty. Unlike the baby boomer children they produced, elders may lack the “emotional vocabulary” to put feelings into words. Therefore, they may lack the ability to seek help and to identify problems such as depression. Concerned family members can encourage those willing to try something new to consider this kind of treatment. Embarrassment to talk about these matters with adult children or friends may be alleviated by finding a caring and confidential therapist who can assist in the process of coping with aging.

The families of elders can be on the lookout for the symptoms of depression, which can include sleeping excessively or not enough, loss of appetite or eating to excess, loss of enjoyment of things formerly enjoyable, rapid weight loss, inability to “get going”, flat mood, lack of energy, withdrawal from normal social or other activity, and crying or other obvious signs of sad mood. If you are concerned about your elder loved one, and you have observed these symptoms, consult your physician about the problem as a first step. The medical doctor can find out if there are physical causes for the things you are worried about. The doctor may choose to refer your loved one to a mental health provider for therapy. The doctor could also prescribe medication for the signs of depression. Simply taking medication without any supportive talk therapy may be inadequate. The benefit of an empathetic therapist can do much to supplement anti-depressant medication with careful and regular monitoring. Talk therapy can also help the elder to find ways to manage many of the psychological problems of growing older.

© 2008 Carolyn L. Rosenblatt, R. N., Attorney at Law

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