Having a sense of purpose and a community network in which to provide these avenues seems to be important for brain health, an important component of aging well. But aging well starts with more basic work. Some of these include:
- Stay positive
- Get physically active
- Get enough sleep
- Eat well
- Connect with other people
- And take care of your spirit
Why is Aging well everyone’s business?
According to research from Mental Health America, the population of people over age 65 in the United States is projected to double between 2000 and 2030, from 35 million to 70 million. While mental illness is not an inevitable part of aging, and older people actually experience fewer mental health conditions (excepting cognitive impairment) as they age, approximately 6.9% of people aged 65-74 experience “frequent mental distress, and many experience mental health and substance use conditions associated with loss of functional capacity even though a formal diagnosis may not be justified. Anxiety and depression and the psychotic symptoms of dementia in all its forms must be addressed for people to age well, and MHA envisions a supportive, integrated system of both psychosocial and medical care that encourages people to meet such challenges as they occur.
Older people with mental health problems are a diverse population including:
- people with lifelong serious and disabling mental illnesses;
- people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia (often with co-occurring episodic anxiety, depression, and psychosis);
- people with severe depression, anxiety, and emotional and behavioral problems that contribute to high rates of suicide, social isolation, and preventable institutionalization;
- people with less severe disorders that nevertheless limit their ability to age well; and
- people who abuse substances, primarily alcohol and pain medications, but increasingly including people with lifelong addictions and those who use illegal substances recreationally.
As stated by Deborah Padgett in the conclusion to her Handbook on Ethnicity, Aging, and Mental Health, aging need not be a time of “irreversible decline and loss,” and depression and emotional distress can be mastered. She concludes: “Declines usually associated with aging are quite malleable and influenced less by aging per se than by a host of psychosocial and lifestyle factors such as stress, diet, and exercise. Among the [most important] psychosocial factors associated with successful aging are a sense of control and autonomy and social support.” So “positive aging” can bring about overall wellness for individuals, focused on their personal goals and current place of residence, social support system, and community. The primary method is by strengths-based therapies that build the healthy habits that MHA refers to as “wellness.” These strengths and supports are critical to aging well.
Still, nearly half of people over age 65 with a recognized mental or substance use disorder have unmet needs for services. Older adults with mental health or substance use conditions often do not seek specialty mental health care. They are more likely to visit their primary care provider– often with a physical complaint. And though treatment can be an important component of aging well, misdiagnosis, especially by non-specialists, is a significant concern, as is an overreliance on drugs rather than psycho-social treatment. The interaction among physical, emotional and behavioral conditions is complex in older people.
Aging well may seem simplistic in practice, but for society at large, we must integrate collaborative initiatives among public and private sectors that offer multi-level approaches to reaching our aging adults and their families with education, resources, and support. Eldercare providers, aging and mental health public service organizations, faith communities and member associations must prioritize this agenda as we enter an era of extreme aging.
Pam Brandon is President/Founder of AGE-u-cate Training Institute and a passionate advocate for older adults and those who serve them. Pam is the creator of the internationally recognized Dementia Live Simulation experience, helping caregivers to understand first-hand what life with dementia might be like. This program is transforming training for law enforcement, first responders, healthcare and long-term care professionals and families and anyone who works with aging adults and their families.