Mental and Emotional Health

Section 13.1: Mental Health and Older Adults

This section contains text excerpted from the following sources: Text under the heading “Why Is Mental Health a Public Health Issue?” is excerpted from “The State of Mental Health and Aging in America,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2008. Reviewed September 2017; Text under the heading “Warning Signs” is excerpted from “Older Adults and Mental Health,” National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), October 2016.

Why Is Mental Health a Public Health Issue?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Because mental health is essential to overall health and well-being, it must be recognized and treated in all Americans, including older adults, with the same urgency as physical health. For this reason, mental health is becoming an increasingly important part of the public health mission.

Mental Health Problems in Older Adults

People age 55 years or older experience some type of mental health concern. The most common conditions include anxiety, severe cognitive impairment, and mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder). Mental health issues are often implicated as a factor in cases of suicide. Older men have the highest suicide rate of any age group.

The Significance of Depression

Depression, a type of mood disorder, is the most prevalent mental health problem among older adults. It is associated with distress and suffering. It also can lead to impairments in physical, mental, and social functioning. The presence of depressive disorders often adversely affects the course and complicates the treatment of other chronic diseases. Older adults with depression visit the doctor and emergency room more often, use more medication, incur higher outpatient charges, and stay longer in the hospital.

Although the rate of older adults with depressive symptoms tends to increase with age, depression is not a normal part of growing older. Rather, in 80 percent of cases it is a treatable condition. Unfortunately, depressive disorders are a widely under-recognized condition and often are untreated or undertreated among older adults.

Social and Emotional Support Life Satisfaction Frequent Mental Distress Depression Anxiety Disorder Warning Signs

Section 13.2: Expanding Circles—Preventing Loneliness as You Age

This section includes text excerpted from “Expand Your Circles Prevent Isolation and Loneliness as You Age,” Eldercare Locator, U.S. Administration on Aging (AOA), May 2016.

As we age, circumstances in our lives often change. We retire from a job, friends move away or health issues convince us to eliminate or restrict driving. When changes like these occur, we may not fully realize how they will affect our ability to stay connected and engaged and how much they can impact our overall health and well-being.

We need social connection to thrive—no matter our age—but research shows that the negative health consequences of chronic isolation and loneliness may be especially harmful for older adults. The good news is that with greater awareness, we can take steps to maintain and strengthen our ties to family and friends, expand our social circles and become more involved in the community around us.

Having a social network that meets our needs means different things to each of us. Evaluate your situation and, if needed, take action to strengthen the relationships that matter the most to you. And don't forget—when you open up your world to new people, sharing your time, talents and wisdom, it's a win-win for you and your entire community.

How Widespread Is the Problem of Social Isolation? What Are the Factors That Put You at Greater Risk?

Caregivers: These risk factors may also provide you with clues to what to look for should you have a family member or neighbor who is isolated or lonely.

Negative Health Effects of Isolation and Loneliness

Associated with higher rates of:

What Steps Can You Take to Stay Connected and Engaged?

Sometimes it takes effort to stay connected. You may have noticed that your social engagements have decreased or that you have gone days or weeks without speaking to or interacting with others. It never hurts to take stock of your network of activities and friends and to evaluate what you can do to make more connections.

Here are some actions you may want to consider taking to help you stay ahead of the “Connection Curve:”

Section 13.3: Mourning the Death of a Spouse

This section includes text excerpted from “Mourning the Death of a Spouse,” National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), August 21, 2017.

When you grieve, you can feel both physical and emotional pain. People who are grieving often cry easily and can have:

In addition to dealing with feelings of loss, you also may need to put your own life back together. This can be hard work. Some people feel better sooner than they expect. Others may take longer. Family, friends, and faith may be sources of support. Grief counseling or grief therapy also is helpful to some people.

As time passes, you may still miss your spouse. But for most people, the intense pain will lessen. There will be good and bad days. You will know you are feeling better when there are more good days than bad. Don't feel guilty if you laugh at a joke or enjoy a visit with a friend.

For some people, mourning can go on so long that it becomes unhealthy. This can be a sign of serious depression and anxiety. Talk with your doctor if sadness keeps you from carrying on with your dayto- day life. Support may be available until you can manage the grief on your own.

What Can You Do?

In the beginning, you may find that taking care of details and keeping busy helps. For a while, family and friends may be around to assist you. But, there comes a time when you will have to face the change in your life.

Here are some ideas to keep in mind:

Does Everyone Feel the Same Way?

Men and women share many of the same feelings when a spouse dies. Both may deal with the pain of loss, and both may worry about the future. But, there also can be differences.

Many married couples divide up their household tasks. One person may pay bills and handle car repairs. The other person may cook meals and mow the lawn. Splitting up jobs often works well until there is only one person who has to do it all. Learning to manage new tasks—from chores to household repairs to finances—takes time, but it can be done.

Being alone can increase concerns about safety. It's a good idea to make sure there are working locks on the doors and windows. If you need help, ask your family or friends.

Facing the future without a husband or wife can be scary. Many men and women have never lived alone. Those who are both widowed and retired may feel very lonely and become depressed. Talk with your doctor about how you are feeling.

Take Charge of Your Life

After years of being part of a couple, it can be upsetting to be alone. Many people find it helps to have things to do every day. Whether you are still working or are retired, write down your weekly plans. You might:

Is There More to Do?

When you feel stronger, you should think about getting your legal and financial affairs in order. For example, you might need to:

When you are ready, go through your husband's or wife's clothes and other personal items. It may be hard to give away these belongings. Instead of parting with everything at once, you might make three piles: one to keep, one to give away, and one “not sure.” Ask your children or others to help. Think about setting aside items like a special piece of clothing, watch, favorite book, or picture to give to your children or grandchildren as personal reminders of your spouse.

What about Going Out?

Having a social life on your own can be tough. It may be hard to think about going to parties or other social events by yourself. It can be hard to think about coming home alone. You may be anxious about dating. Many people miss the feeling of closeness that marriage brings. After time, some are ready to have a social life again.

Here are some things to remember:

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.