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Across Atlantic Canada, governments and community groups are facing the reality that we have a rapidly aging population and, hopefully, preparations are being made by everyone to manage the many challenges that this is likely to bring.
Much of the focus around the needs of the growing senior population is around housing and meeting the increased physical health needs that growing older entails. While this is necessary, it is vital that we also pay heed to the mental health needs that can occur among seniors; an area that's not well understood by the general population and presents some unique challenges.
I recently participated in a training course called Mental Health First Aid for Seniors, which I highly recommend for anyone that's a caregiver to a senior, whether it's a family member or in a professional capacity. Over the two days of training, we learned about the impact of aging on mental health, some of the various mental illnesses that can affect seniors and how it may look different than for younger adults, and a concrete and detailed process for how a caregiver can help and provide support for a senior experiencing any of these issues. While much of the basic information was not new to me, seeing the same information through the lens of a senior citizen was eye-opening and forced me to re-evaluate some of my preconceptions.
Many of us are aware of the increased risk of dementia illnesses among seniors, but people may be less cognizant of the increased risk for other mental health challenges, including anxiety-related disorders; mood-related disorders, such as depression; and substance-related disorders. We often think anyone who lives to be a senior has life all figured out and has learned how to cope with the challenges of life. This assumption ignores the fact that becoming a senior doesn't make you any less human and the losses associated with aging increases the risk of mental health issues.
Think about what your coping skills would be like if you were facing the loss of your peer group, your spouse, having to leave your home or live alone, not having the purpose and structure of work or not physically being able to do the day-to-day tasks required for independent living and you'll have some inkling of the impact this may have on your mental health.
We have come a long way in accepting the need for mental health services in our society, but there remains a stigma attached to mental illness that needs to be overcome. The impact of this is especially felt among seniors, who grew up in a generation in which this stigma was normalized and who are less likely to have been exposed to the education around mental health younger people now receive. This may mean that they are less likely to recognize mental health issues in themselves or their spouse, or may feel a sense of shame or denial if they do notice it, making them less likely to reach out for help before the problem escalates to a point where they are at a higher risk of death, including suicide.
It's important to be aware these types of risks exist and be prepared to meet this need when we become aware of it. Most importantly, we need to be respectful of seniors when we consider mental health and ensure we don't make assumptions about their needs. While the risk of mental health issues is there, we should not assume immediately that seniors need us to step in to help; neither should we ignore what we see and assume they don't need help. An open and respectful conversation around mental health is key in helping seniors take care of all of their health needs as they age.
Brian Hodder works in the field of mental health and addictions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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