Older adults experiencing a behavioral health issue such as anxiety or depression may be embarrassed and think they simply need to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” but helping them seek help can empower them to live their best lives, said Dr. Lindsay Evans-Mitchell, medical director for behavioral health for Cigna Medicare Advantage.
That includes making sure they understand their resources and medical support and have access to accurate information. Every person is different, but the tools for better health can include therapy, medication, and the proven self-care strategies outlined below.
Virtual therapy visits are a popular option for older adults with access to a smart phone, tablet, or computer with a camera and access to the internet. Virtual appointments are easy to schedule and access, and the convenience is unmatched – as is the comfort level of seeing a therapist without leaving home.
Behavioral health disorders – which include dementia – affect one in five adults over 55, and older men have the highest suicide rate of any age group or gender. Among men who are 75 and older, the suicide rate is 40.2 per 100,000, almost triple the overall rate of 13.5 per 100,000.
The most common behavioral health disorder for older adults is dementia, and its incidence is growing as the Baby Boom generation ages. Experts estimate more than 7 million people in the 65-plus age group had dementia in 2020, and they project more than 9 million Americans will have dementia by 2030. In addition to Alzheimer’s disease, progressive dementias – which get worse over time – include vascular dementia, often linked to strokes; Lewy Body dementia; and fronto-temporal dementia. Other types of dementia can be caused by medication side effects, vitamin deficiency, and other factors, and may be reversible.
Anxiety disorders and mood disorders are also common among older people. “A lot of times cognitive disorders, such as dementia, and mood disorders are hard to diagnose or tease out because they can look similar,” Dr. Evans-Mitchell said. Only a trained professional can make an accurate diagnosis. For help finding a provider, older adults can reach out to their primary care physician or their Medicare or Medicare Advantage health plan.
If you or a loved one are dealing with a behavioral health issue, these self-care tips can help:
1. Eat Right – and Drink Plenty of Water
Good nutrition feeds the body and the mind, so be sure to eat a healthy diet. If you have questions about what to eat or would like to learn more about nutrition for older adults, consult your physician or a registered dietitian for guidance. In addition, drink water throughout the day to remain hydrated. “Many older people forget to drink water, which can further some cognitive issues,” Dr. Evans-Mitchell said.
2. Sleep Right
Pay attention to when and where you sleep, Dr. Evans-Mitchell said, as well as how much sleep you get. Like all adults, older people need seven to nine hours of sleep a night. However, she noted that older people tend to go to bed early, wake up early, and nap throughout the day. This on-and-off pattern disrupts healthy sleep cycles and limits rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which can contribute to behavioral health issues.
3. Exercise Your Body
Even moderate exercise can improve your mental health along with your physical health. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans describes improvements in brain health, better cognitive function, and reduced risk of anxiety and mood disorders as benefits. In addition, people who exercise tend to sleep better. Having trouble getting started with exercise? Some Medicare Advantage plans include a fitness benefit, which can pay for a gym membership or provide at home fitness tools.
4. Head Outside and Enjoy the Day
Getting some fresh air has numerous benefits, Dr. Evans-Mitchell said. For example, we absorb vitamin D from the sun – and a Vitamin D deficiency can cause cognitive impairment. In addition, she said, “research has shown that chemicals released from trees can simulate brain functions.” Don’t forget the sunscreen, though: While skin cancer is most common in people older than 65, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that less than half of older adults protect their skin when they’re outside for an hour or more.
5. Reach Out for a Helping Hand – or Someone to Spend Time With
Papa, which is available through some Cigna Medicare Advantage plans, connects older adults and their families with “Papa Pals” for companionship or help with everyday activities. These “Papa Pals” become trusted companions who can provide transportation, help with light chores, or just spend time together, perhaps watching a movie or playing games.
6. The Power of Pets
Caring for a pet provides love, companionship, and plenty of health benefits – including reduced stress and lessened anxiety. Just petting a dog has been shown to lower the level of the stress hormone cortisol, and pets provide a bond that can elevate two brain chemicals that make people feel good: oxytocin and dopamine. On top of those benefits, dogs encourage people to get outside and get exercise, which also help brain health.
Mental health issues can be complex and confusing to navigate for everyone, not just older people. Learning how to seek help – and how to take positive actions to anxiety and depression – can be empowering, Dr. Evans-Mitchell said, because it’s never too late to make a new start.
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