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How the Pandemic Has Taken A Toll on Mental Health For Seniors — and What to Do to Help

Jennifer Christian Herman, Ph.D., vice president, Mindbody Medicine at Blue Shield of California, shares important points for seniors about behavioral health, mental health stigma, the pandemic’s effect on this health issue, and how treatment and self-care can help.

How has the pandemic affected senior adults?

It became evident early in the COVID-19 pandemic that senior adults, 65 and older according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), were at risk for their physical health. But the virus’s impact on seniors has gone beyond the physical. It has impacted their mental health. Whether it has been social and economic hardships or lack of access to family, friends, or even healthcare providers, seniors have experienced increases in feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders, some of which can be attributed to inconsistent physical activity.

JCH headshot
Jennifer Christian-Herman

What are some of the common mental health concerns that senior adults face?

According to the World Health Organization, more than 20% of adults over aged 60 suffer from a mental or neurological disorder (excluding headache disorders) and 6.6% of all disability (disability adjusted life years-DALYs) among people over 60 years old is attributed to mental and neurological disorders. Dementia, depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse are the most common. In most cases, these mental health issues are treatable, but senior adults are less likely to seek or receive care. That’s, in part, due to stigma and to the mistaken belief that their symptoms are a normal part of aging.

How do you detect depression in seniors?

Depression is not just having “the blues” or the sadness felt when grieving the loss of a loved one. It is a medical condition that is treatable, like diabetes or high blood pressure.

Someone who is depressed has feelings of sadness or anxiety that can last for weeks at a time. He or she may also experience:

  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable
  • Noticeable changes in mood, energy level or appetite
  • Difficulty with concentration, memory, and decision-making
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not get better, even with treatment

It is important to know the signs and symptoms of depression and watch for clues. Ask the individual directly if you are concerned. Listen carefully if someone says they feel depressed, down, or empty. The person may really be asking for help.

Why do senior adults develop depression? 

The reasons senior adults develop depression are typically different from the reasons this issue affects young adults or children. Here are some examples why:

  • Social isolation: Worries about COVID-19 and the need to remain apart from others for long period of time over the past two years has had a big impact on the mental health of seniors.
  • Medical conditions: Seniors with a chronic medical condition like diabetes or heart disease puts them at greater risk of depression than healthy people, and aging adults are more likely to have one or more ongoing health condition.
  • Significant life events: A traumatic event such as the death of a spouse or partner or other loved family member or friend increases the risk of developing depression.

Healthcare providers may mistake an older person's symptoms of depression as a normal or natural reaction to an illness, disability, or the life changes that may occur as people age and, therefore, not think that the depression is something that needs to be treated. This, unfortunately, means that older adults are often misdiagnosed, not diagnosed at all, and under-treated when it comes to depression.

Senior adults may be less likely to recognize that they are experiencing mental health symptoms and may not realize that they would feel better with appropriate treatment. This may be partially due to the stigma that exist with mental health challenges or other reasons. It's important to check up on the older people in your life and ask how they're doing, especially if you notice a shift in their behavior and/or their mood.

When is a good time to seek help and how can seniors find care?

It's important to seek help as soon as you or someone you love starts to experience symptoms. Depression, even severe depression, can be treated. Getting treatment sooner rather than later is important.

  • Start by making an appointment to see a primary care doctor or a mental healthcare provider to discuss what is going on and see if treatment might help.
  • If you notice changes in mood or behavior in a senior family member or friend, encourage them to talk to a healthcare provider as soon as possible.

How can self-care and a healthy lifestyle help seniors maintain overall well-being?

Eating well, being active and engaging with others play an important role in maintaining good mental and physical health.

Seniors who have medical coverage with Blue Shield of California have access to Wellvolution at no additional cost, which includes online programs and resources to improve mental well-being, weight loss, smoking cessation, diabetes treatment, and more. One behavioral health app available to Wellvolution participants, for example, is Headspace, a mindfulness and meditation app that offers hundreds of tools and more than 1,000 exercises to reduce stress and improve mental well-being.

If you have a family member or friend who is suffering from mental health issues:

  • Encourage the individual to discuss their symptoms with their primary care physician or other care providers and offer to help them find a therapist or other behavioral health clinician if needed.
  • Discuss the issues, such as depression, openly just as you would for a physical health condition, like diabetes or heart disease, to decrease stigma.
  • Encourage them to participate in activities like walking, social activities, or enjoying nature. Older generations may be less comfortable discussing mental health and offering suggestions to help them can reinforce that you are there for them.

To learn more about Blue Shield of California’s Medicare plans: