Navigating mental health challenges in older adults

Caring for communities

Although the topic of mental health is gaining more attention each year, it is still often overlooked, especially when it comes to navigating mental health challenges in older adults.

Mental health impacts quality of life, physical health and social connection. That’s why it becomes increasingly important to know and understand mental health as you age.

Common mental health challenges in older adults

The life circumstances that older adults face may put them at a higher risk of developing a mental health challenge or condition. For example, older adults experience more social isolation, limited functionality or mobility and chronic health conditions that potentially impact their quality of life.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common mental health conditions in older adults include anxiety and mood disorders such as depression or bipolar disorder.


An anxiety disorder is defined by the Mayo Clinic as an “intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations […] often involving repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks).”

Generalized anxiety disorder is the most common anxiety disorder among the older adult population, according to the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

While older adults experience anxiety disorder risk factors such as stressful life events, limited physical mobility, loss of independence, financial insecurity and chronic health conditions, an anxiety disorder is not something you can control and make go away without medical attention and treatment.

Mood disorders and depression

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), depression is “a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act.” It can cause a loss of interest in activities that once brought pleasure and lead to extreme, everyday feelings of sadness.

Although depression is a common mental health problem in older adults, it is not a normal part of aging and there are treatments available to help.

Other mood disorders include conditions that interfere with “your general emotional state or your mood is distorted or inconsistent with your circumstances and interferes with your ability to function,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Some examples of these mood disorders include bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder, cyclothymic disorder and persistent depressive disorder or dysthymia.

From behind, a female caregiver puts her arm around an older male, representing her helping navigate the older adult's mental health challenge

Navigating mental health challenges through identifying symptoms

Mental health conditions affect older adults at different rates than the rest of the population. Up to 25% of older adults are living with a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression, according to the National Council on Aging.

It’s important to understand signs and symptoms that indicate you may need additional support or mental health care. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), symptoms of mental health conditions in older adults include:

  • Changes in mood
  • Lack of feeling or trouble with experiencing positive emotions
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Increased restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Prolonged or increased worry or feelings of stress
  • Changes in appetite
  • Feelings of anger or irritability
  • Ongoing physical pain such as headaches or digestive issues
  • Substance abuse with alcohol or drugs
  • Prolonged sadness or hopelessness
  • Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts
  • Risky behavior
  • Recurring negative thoughts or behaviors that interrupt work, family or social life
  • Experiencing things that other people are not seeing or hearing

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the above symptoms consistently, reach out to your physician to discuss professional interventions in your mental health care.

Mental health stigma in older generations

Many older adults face stigma against receiving mental health treatment. Older generations, such as baby boomers, grew up in a time when mental health was not talked about.

Oftentimes, this generation viewed issues such as depression or anxiety as a weakness instead of a true mental health condition. While this is not a fault of older generations, it does mean that older adults must work to break the stigma, and the first step is talking about and normalizing mental health.

If you suspect you may have anxiety, depression or another mental health condition, it is important to consult your physician. Seeking treatment through a health care professional does not mean you are weak, but instead, you are taking charge of your mental health to get the treatment you deserve.

Navigating mental health challenges through coping strategies

While you should seek treatment from a licensed mental health counselor or your primary care physician to address any mental health challenges, there are certain skills you can incorporate into your lifestyle to help maintain your mental health.

The NIMH has developed the following list to make it easier to cope with risk factors and mental health:

  • Get regular exercise
    • The CDC recommends that older adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week.
  • Eat healthy, regular meals and stay hydrated
  • Make sleep a priority
  • Try a relaxing activity
    • Some ideas include listening to music, reading, journaling or gardening.
  • Set goals and priorities
    • When you determine your goals and priorities, it may help you feel less stressed about what needs to get done each day.
  • Practice gratitude
    • Even just identifying one thing you’re grateful for each day may help shift your mindset to recognize positivity over negativity.
  • Stay connected
    • A lack of social connection can increase one’s risk for heart disease, stroke or premature death. Read more about the risks of social isolation here.

When you incorporate healthy self-care strategies into your lifestyle, your mental health may improve, or it may feel easier to address any mental health challenges you are facing. If these self-help strategies aren’t helping or if your mental well-being gets worse, reach out to your physician to discuss other professional interventions.

Resources for mental health and older adults

If you or a loved one is facing a mental health crisis, call 911 or visit an emergency department nearby. You can also call the toll-free, 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

For further resources, please visit the CDC’s resource page on older adults and mental health and the NIMH’s website for digital wellness toolkits.

Social Share