Ageism in Medicine: Senior Mental Health is of Vital Importance

Much as in the general population, senior mental health is of equal importance to physical health.

In fact, the two play off each other.

In 1999, the U.S. surgeon general defined mental health as “the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and providing the ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity”. Quality of life suffers when any of these things cannot be done.

Poor mental health can:  affect financial stability; strain families; open up the possibility for crime or victimization, and even negatively impact physical well-being. Unfortunately, mental health is often an area most doctors avoid when treating older patients. This sends the message that depression is normal in the elderly.

Senior mental health and ageism

Sadly, the rate of suicide in the elderly is four times the national average. In addition, 75% of those who committed suicide had seen their primary care doctor within the past month. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found that doctors do not spend enough time talking to elderly patients about their mental health. Results also showed that doctors “need more support in how to identify, treat and refer patients to mental health specialists.” Apparently, doctors and need to do more.

Family Advocacy Can Stem Negative Effects of Ageism

In order to advocate for your loved ones, caregivers and family members of the elderly should be aware of the possible signs of mental illness.

These signs can include:

  • Sadness or depression lasting longer than two weeks
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or social activities
  • Unexplained decrease in energy or changes in sleep patterns
  • Difficulties with concentration or decision-making
  • Change in appetite or changes in weight
  • Memory loss, especially short-term memory
  • Feelings of unimportance, misplaced guilt or thoughts of suicide
  • Unexplainable physical setbacks such as aches, constipation, etc.
  • Changes in appearance or problems taking care of the home
  • Struggles with money or working with numbers

Going Forward: Next Steps

In order to better serve our elderly population, doctors should be required to undergo more formal training in geriatrics. Aside from improving the overall health status, understanding the elderly will serve to maintain their mental well-being. Caregivers and family members can protect the mental health of the older adults in their lives by being watchful for the symptoms and advocating for quality care. Therapy, medications and lifestyle changes can all be used to effectively treat mental illness and enable older adults to live longer, fuller lives.


David York  Agency is well aware of the issues surrounding aging. We put a premium on personalized services and attention. If you would like more information about David York Agency’s qualified, compassionate caregivers, contact us online or by phone at 718.376.7755. A free phone consultation can help you decide how to provide your loved ones with the assistance they need. If you’d like to hear more from us, please like us on Facebook or follow us on TwitterGoogle+, or LinkedIn.