According to the National Coalition on Mental Health and Aging, in the United States older adults have the highest rate of suicide relative to all other age groups. In particular, white males over the age of 85 die by suicide at four times the rate of the general population. This statistic alone should be enough reason to focus on the mental health of older adults, but there are numerous other reasons why it is so important we begin talking about older adult’s mental health. Older adults are facing many life changes and some of these might include physical abilities declining, loss of loved ones, and a drop in socioeconomic status due to retirement. All these things could affect older adult’s mental health and because of these changes in their lives, it is even more important they implement protective factors to avoid requiring long-term care.
As people get older, their physical abilities are going to decline. This is a natural part of aging, but it still is something which can be difficult to deal with mentally and emotionally. The main reason it can be so hard is because when individuals’ physical abilities decline, their way of life also changes. It is important when this happens that people implement positive coping strategies and protective factors to help.
Older adults might also lose loved ones as they get older. Losing a loved one is incredibly difficult for anyone to go through, no matter what age. It can be even more difficult for older adults, especially if they are losing many loved ones in their lives. This can affect their mental health in a variety of different ways. If an older adult loses someone who was very close to them like a spouse or child, they might start to feel lonely or even isolated. As human beings, human connection is essential to our well-being. It is important for older adults to remain connected to others in some capacity. Whether that be volunteering in their community or meeting up with friends for social support.
There is also a chance that older adults will face a drop in their socioeconomic status. This is not something that will happen to everyone, but some people will face this problem. This would impact the mental health of older adults in a variety of different ways. Like physical abilities changing, if older adults face a drop in their socioeconomic status, they are also going to face a change in their way of life. One-way older adults can help themselves if this happens is by setting goals. Even though their way of life is going to be different, setting goals allows them to look forward to the future and gives them something to focus on.
Along with the many different factors that could impact older adult’s mental health, there are also many misconceptions that exist surrounding mental health for older adults. Many people believe persistent memory loss or prolonged sadness or grief is normal for older adults to experience, but that is not the case. It is true as you get older, you will experience some forgetfulness and will experience more loss which could lead to sadness, but it is not normal for older adults to experience either persistent memory loss or prolonged sadness or depression.
Based off statistics and the many different factors that impact older adults, we know that it is important to focus on their mental health. But do they? It is becoming more and more common to discuss mental health, especially with younger populations. For some older adults, it is a topic that isn’t discussed at much length, if at all. Many older adults grew up in an age where the stigma surrounding mental health was even greater. There unfortunately was a lack of understanding surrounding mental health, so many people didn’t talk about it at all. Growing up not talking about your emotions, self-esteem, or mental well-being is going to make it more difficult to discuss as you get older. Therefore, it is so important we all continue to discuss mental health whenever we have the opportunity. It is also essential we educate ourselves on different topics surrounding mental health, including symptoms of mental health conditions, encouraged language when discussing mental health, and even ways you can help a loved one going through a mental health condition. We do not all have to be experts when it comes to mental health, but if we can all stay informed then we can work together to break down the stigma surrounding mental health, especially mental health for older adults.
Katie Zimmerman, Project Coordinator for The Kim Foundation
Katie Zimmerman joined The Kim Foundation in June 2019. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies and Sociology from Central College in Pella, Iowa. During her time in college, she volunteered at many non-profit organizations and took multiple sociology classes which focused on mental health. Katie’s role at The Kim Foundation includes running the social media accounts, assisting in the Youth Advisory Council, and providing mental health awareness and education to the community through A Voice for Hope and Healing presentations.