Aging and Geriatric Issues

Close up of old couple holding hands

Aging is a natural process that may present challenges for some individuals and their families. Although many older adults look forward to moving from middle age into their later years, it may be difficult for others to adjust.

All adults may experience health issues and stress as they approach and pass middle age, and the support of a therapist or other mental health professional may help ease the transition.

Understanding Aging and Geriatric Issues

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While some adults may approach their "Golden Years" eagerly, anticipating retirement, grandchildren, or simply a new phase of life, others may dread the physical and mental effects of aging. It may be difficult for some adults to face the transition to retirement, deal with new frailty or medical conditions, or find enjoyable, meaningful activities if they do experience physical challenges that limit their mobility. It may also be difficult for some older adults to face mortality, especially when friends, peers, or spouses and partners pass on, and they may come to experience isolation in the wake of many such deaths. Older adults may also find it challenging to attend to basic needs in the presence of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, which affect approximately one in ten Americans of retirement age.

Ageism, or discrimination based on a person's age, may also affect some older adults, and this practice may lead to forced retirement or cause well-intentioned loved ones to ignore an older adult's desires or opinions.

Medical Issues of Aging

One of the challenges older adults may experience is distinguishing the normal effects of advancing age from signs of actual physical or mental illness. Many people over the age of 65 continue to live happy and healthy independent lives. Most older adults will experience some changes in cognition, but this is a normal part of the aging process. Researchers have found that healthy older adults often experience mild decline in the areas of:

  • visual and verbal memory
  • visuospatial abilities
  • immediate memory, or the ability to name objects
  • hearing and vision
  • bodily strength
  • appetite and energy level

A health care professional can help older adults become accustomed to these kinds of changes and distinguish them from a serious health condition such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease (a referral to a psychiatrist or internist may be necessary).

Therapy for Geriatric Issues

Therapy can help older adults who may have difficulty with the transitions of aging to manage their emotions, find new sources of enjoyment and meaning, and find new support systems. It can help people face their fears of death, if they have such fears, and deal with grief over the passings of friends and family. Family or individual therapy can also assist family members who may be caretakers of their elder relatives, as it can assist them in dealing with their emotions, communication issues—which may be especially helpful if an elder has some form of dementia—and community resources. Possible diagnoses associated with aging might be include depression or anxiety. Dementia is technically a medical diagnosis rather than a mental one, but therapeutic treatment may be able to help treat some of the symptoms associated with dementia.

Many older adults also enter therapy to seek treatment for mental health issues not related to aging, in higher numbers than they did in the past. This appears to be due to the fact that attitudes pertaining to mental health issues have begun to change as awareness increases. Many older adults grew up in a time when mental illness was stigmatized and when all mental issues faced by seniors were written off as aging or dementia. But now, therapy is considered by many older adults as a form of treatment, and research shows that seniors are often more serious about therapy, realizing that their time is limited, and that they tend to obtain results more quickly than younger people do. In therapy, seniors may address issues from childhood or early adulthood; current life adjustments; and issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, or family concerns, among others.  

Older adults may also be more likely to enter therapy late in life now than they were in the past simply because people live longer now than they did previously. A person who is 60 years of age is likely to have 15 or 20 years remaining in life, and the transitory period that occurs for many at this stage may begin a process of reflection that leads many older adults to seek therapy.

Case Example

Stress experienced as a result of caring for aging mother: Rosa, 72, is brought to therapy by her daughter, Maria. Maria has been visiting her mother every day for five years, ever since Maria’s father (Rosa’s husband) died, leaving Rosa alone. Maria helps Rosa shop and cook and clean and keeps her company. But lately, Rosa needs more and more help, and Maria feels she cannot meet her mother’s needs anymore. Rosa is irritated by this and angrily tells her daughter, “You don’t even care about me.” The therapist takes a thorough personal history of the family and comes to suspect that Rosa is suffering from a form of dementia. The therapist refers Rosa to a physician, who confirms this. The therapist then works with Maria to find appropriate, affordable, professional services for Rosa, including an adult day center and an in-home nurse that Rosa’s insurance covers. The therapist also helps Maria and Rosa understand the symptoms of Rosa’s illness, helps Maria deal with feelings of guilt as well as communication difficulties, and facilitates joint sessions to help the two talk about what Rosa is going through.

References:

  1. Atiq, R. (2006, June 1). Common Themes and Issues in Geriatric Psychotherapy. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2990651
  2. Ellin, A. (2013, April 22). How Therapy Can Help in the Golden Years. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/22/how-therapy-can-help-in-the-golden-years/?_r=0
  3. Graham, J. (2013, January 2). Aging adults face universal issues of access to care, poverty, discrimination. Retrieved from http://healthjournalism.org/blog/2013/01/aging-adults-face-universal-issues-of-access-to-care-poverty-discrimination
  4. Mental health and older adults. (2013, September 1). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs381/en
  5. Older Adults: What Challenges Might Older Adults Have? (2011, August 22). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthliteracy/developmaterials/audiences/olderadults/understanding-challenges.html
  6. Older Adults' Health and Age-Related Changes. (1998, April 1). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/aging/resources/guides/older.aspx

 

Last updated: 07-15-2015

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