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Aging alone

As more baby boomers enter the third stage of life, mental health practitioners are taking a closer look at the mental health impact of aging—and oftentimes aging alone.

One of the biggest perks of having your own home—outside of the tax breaks—is having a place to call your own and enjoy with your family or partner. But what happens when that home starts feeling a little emptier? The kids have grown up and moved out, or maybe your significant other has passed away. Now what used to be a lively space with people running around is just you.

With advancements in science and technology, people are living longer and healthier lives than the generations before them. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2050, the population ages 65 and older is projected to be 83.7 million, almost double the population of the same age group from 2012.

And women are continuing to outlive men. Older men are reportedly more likely to be married—leaving heterosexual women who outlive their spouses to be widows. (For women who identify as LGBTQ, we may see a different data trend in future decades.) However, there’s still no guarantee that those significant others, friends, and blood relatives will continue to be the “family” they once were in their later years.

For some aging citizens, living alone can become an issue.

“I have no emergency contacts.”

“How can I make sure that my doctor will honor my do-not-resuscitate wish?”

“My condo association is worried about whether we should have check-ins for elderly, single condo owners.”

“I don’t have anyone to bring me home after my colonoscopy.”

“I need to run errands. But I’m wary of using ride-sharing apps to get me from place to place, and I don’t really know how to use them.”

These were just a few of many concerns that “Going It Alone” workshop attendees expressed during the 17th annual Naomi Ruth Cohen Institute (NRCI) to tackle the theme “Older Adult Mental Health: Opportunities and Challenges,” held on June 3, 2018 in Evanston, Illinois. Open to the public, academics, students, and interested seniors were in attendance to learn more about supporting mental, physical, and spiritual health as we age.

Mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and the opioid crisis are really prevalent among older adults,” says Robyn Golden, MA, LCSW, ACSW, who moderated the larger panel discussion at this year’s NRCI conference. “It’s often hidden due to shame or bias. Older adults aren’t going to pick up the phone and call a mental health agency or an aging network agency. They may speak with their hairdresser, barber, priest, rabbi, or minister.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 15 percent of adults aged 60 and over suffer from a mental disorder. While most seniors have good mental health, if left unchecked, many older adults are reportedly at risk of developing mental disorders, neurological disorders or substance abuse problems. (This is in addition to physical ailments such as diabetes, hearing loss, and osteoarthritis.)

“Primary care physicians’ offices are the de facto mental health system in our country,” Golden says. “Primary care is critical to identify issues that people may not say directly, such as being depressed. And a big part of what we’re talking about today is stigma. The stigma exists not just for older adults but for their families, who often don’t want to admit something like that would be going on. They view depression as a normal part of aging, which it’s not.”

While seniors may go to the doctor for physical pain, it may take a little more coaxing to admit concerns that cannot be seen by the naked eye.

According to the American Psychological Association, “Early recognition, diagnosis, and treatment can counteract and prevent depression’s emotional and physical consequences. … Late-life events such as chronic and debilitating medical disorders, loss of friends and loved ones, and the inability to take part in once-cherished activities can take a heavy toll on an aging person’s emotional well-being.”

But it doesn’t have to if people are better informed about the resources available to them. Approximately 40 conference participants at the NRCI event handed out tchotchkes and educational material on topics such as anxiety, depression, caregiving, coping with loss, depression, dementia, delirium, LGBTQ aging, veterans’ health, substance abuse, managing chronic pain, multiculturalism, and family dynamics. One workshop focused exclusively on mindfulness and chair yoga.

Two of the ways WHO recommends being able to reverse (or control) this trend is to do exactly what this year’s NRCI conference did—create health and social programs targeted toward vulnerable groups, such as those who live alone, to give them the opportunity to network and realize that they are not alone in their concerns, although they may live alone.

Adequate, supportive housing was another topic that came up in the “Going It Alone” workshop. With seniors living longer, safe and affordable housing is an undeniable priority. There are, of course, structural needs that must be met for those with disabilities and the devices that may accompany them-wheelchairs, canes, etc. Being bedridden and unable to perform one’s own tasks may be less prevalent with elderly populations living healthier lives as they age, and technology (ex. power-driven devices) continues to improve the convenience for those with physical disabilities.

However, there are also accessibility needs for elders, single or not, who need to be able to travel to local grocery stores, their doctors, and have the opportunity to enjoy community activities or supportive workshops.

Even learning about how Uber created the Go Go Grandparent option for seniors to call in, as opposed to using the mobile app, helped workshop participants breathe a sigh of relief.

“I am always worried about background checks on these car programs and who is picking me up,” says one “Going It Alone” workshop participant. “And I don’t even know how to use a mobile app so just learning about stuff like Go Go Grandparent may help me get from place to place.”

Caretakers also came out to different workshops to find out best practices in working with their own family and nonrelated seniors.

“It’s great to have people come out and help eliminate the stigmas related to aging populations and mental illnesses,” says TCS Education System President Michael Horowitz, Ph.D. “The idea is to make people feel more comfortable about discussing issues that they may have not even wanted to speak about at home. And year after year, the Naomi Ruth Cohen Institute continues to do just that.”

Read articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Insight:

1. President’s Letter: “Four decades and counting”

2. “Predicting the unpredictable”

3. “Principled profits”

4. “Rhymes + Rhythms = Revolution”

5. “Project 1948: Bosnia”

6. “Global education in action”

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Shamontiel L. Vaughn joined TCS Education System’s Marketing Department as the Editorial Writer in February 2017. She has previously worked in digital media with the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Defender, CBS Chicago, and Sun Times Network.


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