We have come a long way in our understanding of mental disorders over the past several decades.
The National Alliance for Mental Illness reports that more than 6.5 million older Americans may suffer from mental depression. When these people were younger, mental illness was a “forbidden” subject. People with mental disorders of any type were institutionalized, often for many years. Depression would not have been acknowledged, even if severe. Complicating matters, therapy wasn’t available and medications to treat illnesses like depression were harsh and caused debilitating side effects.
Depression simply wasn’t something you talked about. Many elderly people have been left with depression that has been untreated for decades. They may have unresolved issues from childhood or early adult life and others may have newly developed concerns such as deaths of loved ones, health problems, and new living environments. Many of these elders may benefit from therapy but grew up in a time where only “crazy people” asked for help with psychiatric disorders.
As these people have aged, our knowledge of dementia has also grown. When faced with changes in behavior, some caregivers may have leapt to the assumption that dementia was causing the difference. Consequently, there still remains a large portion of the elderly population that may be undiagnosed with a mental health disorder.
Even today, some sources report that the incidence of depression drops off after the age of 64. There has also been a sense that older people are “too set in their ways” and would not respond to intervention. What may be more likely is that older people are not seeking assistance because they do not know that there may be a solution or are still afraid of the stigma.
Medical treatment of depression in the elderly is a challenging issue as many are taking multiple medications which may interact with antidepressants. Fortunately, as more medical professionals and caregivers begin to recognize the prevalence of depression in the elderly, experience is showing that cognitive therapy can help. Psychiatric and psychology experts say that therapy itself may be more beneficial in the elderly than younger patients as they become aware that time is fleeting and may be more serious about changing their thought patterns.
Therapy for the elderly does not have to be a burdensome process. Many patients may benefit from short sessions of only 15 or 20 minutes in length. When depression has become severe, some may benefit from simple cognitive behavioral techniques such as requiring the patient to get dressed every day, even if he or she does not feel like it. When practiced over a period of time, simple changes may begin to improve the mood state. Sometimes what the older person needs is a simple ability to put life in perspective.
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