Chapter 5
Older Adults and Mental Health

Chapter Overview

Overview of Mental Disorders in Older Adults

Depression in Older Adults

Alzheimer’s Disease

Other Mental Disorders in Older Adults

Service Delivery

Other Services and Supports



Other Services and Supports

Older adults and their families depend on a multiplicity of supports that extend beyond the health and mental health care systems. Patients and caregivers need access to education, support networks, support and self-help groups, respite care, and human services, among other supports (Scott-Lennox & George, 1996). These services assume heightened importance for older people who are living alone, who are uncomfortable with formal mental health services, or who are inadequately treated in primary care. Services and supports appear to be instrumental not only for the patient but also for the family caregiver, as this section explains, but research on their efficacy is sparse. The strongest evidence surrounds the efficacy of services for family caregivers. Support for family caregivers is crucial for their own health and mental health, as well as for controlling the high costs of institutionalization of the family member in their care. The longer the patient remains home, the lower the total cost of institutional care for those who eventually need it.

Support and Self-Help Groups

Support groups, which are an adjunct to formal treatment, are designed to provide mutual support, information, and a broader social network. They can be professionally led by counselors or psychologists, but when they are run by consumers8 or family members, they are known as self-help groups. The distinction is somewhat clouded by the fact that mental health professionals and community organizations often aid self-help groups with logistical support, start-up assistance, consultation, referrals, and education (Waters, 1995). For example, self-help support groups sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association use professionals to provide consultation to groups orchestrated by lay leaders.

Support groups for people with mental disorders and their families have been found helpful for adults (see Chapter 4). Participation in support groups, including self-help groups, reduces feelings of isolation, increases knowledge, and promotes coping efforts. What little research has been conducted on older people is generally positive but has been limited mostly to caregivers (see later section) and widows (see below), rather than to older people with mental disorders.

Despite the scant body of research, there is reason to believe that support and self-help group participation is as beneficial, if not more beneficial, for older people with mental disorders. Older people tend to live alone and to be more socially isolated than are other people. They also are less comfortable with formal mental health services. Therefore, social networks established through support and self-help groups are thought to be especially vital in preventing isolation and promoting health. Support programs also can help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, to foster early detection of illnesses, and to improve compliance with formal interventions.

Earlier sections of this chapter documented the untoward consequences of prolonged bereavement: severe emotional distress, adjustment disorders, depression, and suicide. Outcomes have been studied for two programs of self-help for bereavement. One program, They Help Each Other Spiritually (THEOS), had robust effects on those who were more active in the program. Those widows and widowers displayed the improvements on health measures such as depression, anxiety, somatic symptoms, and self-esteem (Lieberman & Videka-Sherman, 1986). The other program, Widow to Widow: A Mutual Health Program for the Widowed, was developed by Silverman (1988). The evaluation in a controlled study found program participants experienced fewer depressive symptoms and recovered their activities and developed new relationships more quickly (Vachon, 1979; Vachon et al., 1980, 1982).

Education and Health Promotion

There is a need for improved consumer-oriented public information to educate older persons about health promotion and the nature of mental health problems in aging. Understanding that mental health problems are not inevitable and immutable concomitants of the aging process, but problems that can be diagnosed, treated, and prevented, empowers older persons to seek treatment and contributes to more rapid diagnosis and better treatment outcomes.

With respect to health promotion, older persons also need information about strategies that they can follow to maintain their mental health. Avoiding disease and disability, sustaining high cognitive and physical function, and engaging with life appear to be important ways to promote mental and physical health (Rowe & Kahn, 1997). The two are interdependent.

Established programs for health promotion in older people include wellness programs, life review, retirement, and bereavement groups (see review by Waters, 1995). Although controlled evaluations of these programs are infrequent, bereavement and life review appear to be the best studied. Bereavement groups produce beneficial results, as noted above, and life review has been found to produce positive outcomes in terms of stronger life satisfaction, psychological well-being, self-esteem, and less depression (Haight et al., 1998). Life review also was investigated through individualized home visits to homebound older people in the community who were not depressed but suffered chronic health conditions. Life review for these older people was found to improve life satisfaction and psychological well-being (Haight et al., 1998).

Another approach to promoting mental health is to develop a “social portfolio,” a program of sound activities and interpersonal relationships that usher individuals into old age (Cohen, 1995b). While people in the modern work force are advised to plan for future economic security—to strive for a balanced financial portfolio—too little attention is paid to developing a balanced social portfolio to help to plan for the future. Ideally, such a program will balance individual with group activities and high mobility/energy activities requiring significant physical exertion with low mobility/energy ones. The social portfolio is a mental health promotion strategy for helping people develop new strengths and satisfactions.

Families and Caregivers

Among the many myths about aging is that American families do not care for their older members. Such myths are based on isolated anecdotes as opposed to aggregate data. Approximately 13 million caregivers, most of whom are women, provide unpaid care to older relatives (Biegel et al., 1991). Families are committed to their older members and provide a spectrum of assistance, from hands-on to monetary help (Bengston et al., 1985; Sussman, 1985; Gatz et al., 1990; Cohen, 1995a). Problems occur with older individuals who have no children or spouse, thereby reducing the opportunity to receive family aid. Problems also occur with the “old-old,” those over 85 whose children are themselves old and, therefore, unable to provide the same intensity of hands-on help that younger adult children can provide. These special circumstances highlight the need for careful attention to planning for mental health service delivery to older individuals with less access to family or informal support systems.

Conversely, a large and growing number of older family members care for chronically mentally ill and mentally retarded younger adults (Bengston et al., 1985; Gatz et al., 1990; Eggebeen & Wilhelm, 1995). Too little is known about ways to help the afflicted younger individuals and their caregiving parents. Families are eager to help themselves, and society needs to find ways to better enable them to do so.

There is a great need to better educate families about what they can do to help promote mental health and to prevent and treat mental health problems in their older family members. Families fall prey to negative stereotypes that little can be done for late-life mental health problems. They need to know that mental health problems in later life, like physical health problems, can be treated. They need to understand how to better recognize symptoms or signals of impending mental health problems among older adults so that they can help their loved ones receive early interventions. They need to know what services are available, where they can be found, and how to help their older relatives access such help when necessary.

The plight of family caregivers is pivotal. As noted earlier, the burden of caring for an older family member places caregivers at risk for mental and physical disorders. Virtually all studies find elevated levels of depressive symptomatology among caregivers, and those using diagnostic interviews report high rates of clinical depression and anxiety (Schultz et al., 1995). Ensuring their mental and physical health is not only vital for their well-being but also is vital for the older people in their care. Support groups and services aimed at caregivers can improve their health and quality of life, can improve management of patients in their care, and can delay their institutionalization.

Communities and Social Services

Family support is often supplemented by enduring long-term relationships between older people and their neighbors and community, including religious, civic, and public organizations (Scott-Lennox & George, 1996). Linkages to these organizations instill a sense of belonging and companionship. Such linkages also provide a safety net, enabling some older people to live independently in spite of functional decline.

While the vast majority of frail and homebound older people receive quality care at home, abuse does occur. Estimates vary, but most studies find rates of abuse by caregivers (either family or nonfamily members) to range up to 5 percent (Coyne et al., 1993; Scott-Lennox & George, 1996). Abuse is generally defined in terms of being either physical, psychological, legal, or financial. The abuse is most likely to occur when the patient has dementia or late-life depression, conditions that impart relatively high psychological and physical burdens on caregivers (Coyne et al., 1993). A recent report by the Institute of Medicine describes the range of interventions for protection against abuse of older people, including caregiver participation in support groups and training programs for behavioral management (especially for Alzheimer’s disease) and social services programs (e.g., adult protective services, casework, advocacy services, and out-of-home placements). While there are very few controlled evaluations of these services (IOM, 1998), communities need to ensure that there are programs in place to prevent abuse of older people. Programs can incorporate any of a number of effective psychosocial and support interventions for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers—interventions that were presented earlier in this section and the section on Alzheimer’s disease.

Communities need to ensure the availability of adult day care and other forms of respite services to aid caregivers striving to care for family members at home. They also can provide assistance to self-help and other support programs for patients and caregivers. In the process of facilitating or providing services, communities need to consider the diversity of their older residents—racial and ethnic diversity, socioeconomic diversity, diversity in settings where they live, and diversity in levels of general functioning. Such diversity demands comprehensive program planning, information and referral services (including directories of what is available in the community), strong outreach initiatives, and concerted ways to promote accessibility. Moreover, each component of the community-based delivery system targeting older adults should incorporate a clear focus on mental health. Too often, attention to mental health services for older people and their caregivers is negligible or absent, despite the fact, as noted earlier, that mental health problems and caregiver distress are among the leading reasons for institutionalization (Lombardo, 1994). Important life tasks remain for individuals as they age. Older individuals continue to learn and contribute to society, in spite of physiologic changes due to aging and increasing health problems.

8 Consumers are people engaged in and served by mental health services.

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