Monday, November 22, 2010

Aging and mental illness

          I had the opportunity of working at a personal care home for three years. I really enjoyed working with older adults and I definitely learnt a lot from them. I noticed through my working experiences that many residents at the home had a mental illness. Reading the article Growing Older: The Lived Experience of Older Persons with Serious Mental Illness gave me a better understanding of what aging individuals with a mental illness might be going through. The article emphasized the importance of understanding the experiences of aging people with an illness, since these individuals are living longer and informal supports, such as family, are decreasing. The need of formal mental health care system for services and support is therefore increasing. “Understanding the perspectives of persons who are growing older with serious mental illness may help to predict the requirements of mental health service delivery and inform future practice” (Tryssenaar, Chui, & Finch, 2003, p. 22). According to Ward, well-being and worry about possible illness becomes more important as people age, since people over the age of 75 are more likely than younger individuals to have a disability or chronic health problem.

          Studies done for the article by Tryssenaar, Chui, & Finch, reported that older persons with severe mental illness were generally more comfortable in their surroundings and more satisfied with their living conditions than younger persons, as aging seemed to ease social integration and decrease symptoms. Older persons demonstrated acceptance, adaptation, and a more positive outlook on life. The normal aging that occurs over the lifespan of the adult life seems to intervene the severity of serious mental illness. However, the article did not ignore the fact that aging with serious mental illness presents challenges. “Older individuals with serious mental illness appear to receive less help from both formal and informal systems and are less optimistic about the future than are younger ones” (Tryssenaar, Chui, & Finch, 2003, p. 23). According to the article, older persons are more likely than younger ones to predict that the outcome of their illness will not improve in the future. Aging was identified as having both positive and negative effects on individuals with serious mental illness, which may be affected by acceptance or lowered expectations of the present and future.

          Individuals interviewed in the article seemed to have a greater awareness of the benefits of medication and accessible supportive resources. Lack of adequate age-appropriate programs and a desire to be heard and understood were expressed by individuals. Frequent structured programs and activities gave individuals a sense of purpose, accomplishment, and value, which were identified in maintaining their mental health and involvement in their communities. “Participants reported frustration with the delivery of health care services and the lack of involvement of persons with serious mental illness by the health care system. This apparent exclusion highlighted the fact that their opinions often were not validated and contributed to their overall feelings of isolation” (Tryssenaar, Chui, & Finch, 2003, p. 29). Desire to be heard and understood was expressed. However, many other participants reported positive experiences with existing programs and supports.

          Participants in the interviews often reported past challenging circumstances and difficulty developing or continuing relationships. Among women, physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse seemed to be a common part of their family environment and health care system. One individual shared: “If I had been brought up in a better situation where there wasn't the verbal abuse, and there wasn't alcoholism...I might have had a better chance. Not that I'm blaming anybody. It's just...I can see where the problems began...or where they were rooted” (Tryssenaar, Chui, & Finch, 2003, p. 27). I believe this demonstrates that many mental illnesses in older persons, such as depression and anxiety, have been affected by their past, and many haven't received the adequate support to overcome these traumas.

          Social stigma, according to the article, seemed a common factor for those affected by mental illness. Many expressed that they felt people were more accepting of people with physical disabilities over those with mental disabilities. Stigma often resulted in loneliness and isolation. As well, poverty, limited housing options, and discrimination were voiced concerns by individuals with mental illness. One expressed: “I think the government should experience what it's like to live on whatever money you're getting...then they'll be able to better understand our way (Tryssenaar, Chui, & Finch, 2003, p. 28). According to Mullaly, older Canadians are among subordinate groups experiencing oppression and violence. “For these people, poverty, loneliness, and a sense of uselessness contribute to Alzheimer's and related dementias, very high suicide rates, and abuse of prescription drugs” (p. 275).

          I believe a lot more priority needs to be put towards our aging population. I learnt that government intervention is necessary to provide the necessary support, programs, living necessities, and education towards older persons. I also believe that each one of us can make a difference in the lives of of those aging with an illness. I've seen many times at the personal care home where I worked, that simply a small visit or a smile could brighten an older person's day. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of those who made this world a better place for us.

Tryssenaar, J., Chui, A., & Finch, L. (2003). Growing Older: The Lived Experience of Older Persons with Serious Mental Illness. Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health. Volume 22, Number 1, p. 21-33. Ontario, Canada: Canadian Periodical for Community Studies, Inc.

Ward, M. (2006). Grey Power and the Sunset Years. The Family Dynamic: A Canadian Perspective (fourth ed.). Thomson, Canada: Thomas Nelson

Mullaly, B. (2007). The New Structural Social Work (third ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Sarah H


  1. Hi! I work in a seniors home and I to notice that a lot of people have mental of physical disabilities. As elderly people age it seems as though their bodies are not meant to keep up with the life so they slowly begin to change and deteriorate. It is quite sad and you are absolutely right to say that there are not enough people out there that are helping with the situation. In my building we have a lot of family come through to talk to their relatives but we don't often see the family helping. Maybe it is because the family does not know how or maybe they think it is a waste of time. Some of the tenants have personal home care that comes to help them take medication, baths, take them on walks, assist with any thing really. This is such a bonus for these tenants. Many elderly people don't have this advantage. They have to do it them selves which means many of them are left sitting in a chair all day. I agree that there needs to be a larger support group for the elderly and that we need to get out there and help more. The government does play a huge role in the lives of these people but i believe that they can work together to make an even bigger change.Thanks! -Brittany L

  2. Unfortunately, many senior citizens who do have mental illnesses are viewed upon as "o well, they are going to die sooner or later." It seems as though more attention is paid to children, adolescents, and adults with mental illnesses, but what about the elderly?

    Your blog mentions that older persons with mental disabilities are more likely to display a positive outlook on life, and I most definitely agree that at older ages people handle mental disabilities differently, possibly even easier.

    I believe it is because the elderly have lived many years to experience life and all its ups, downs. But, just because an eighty-five year old with depression handles their situation better than a thirty-five year old with depression, does not mean that the younger should have more of a chance of getting better.

    They both deserve an equal chance of receiving support and treatment. As much as the government says that everyone is equal, that is not always the case. I understand that for elderly`s living in nursing homes, they don`t always have the accessibility to go out the therapy sessions and receive adequate help. Therefore, I think there should be counselors who go to elderly`s homes and nursing homes and counsel elders with mental disabilities. That way the elder`s could enjoy what is rest of their life and be happy and healthier.

    Ashley R.

  3. I agree with you, We can make a difference in our world by creating the change not just wishing for it. I think the government does have quite a few services in place already, but there is so much more than can be done not only be government but by society! With the babyboomers getting older and retiring I wonder if we are ready to handle the heavy need for more services.

    Jennilee M.