10 Symptoms of Mental Illness in the Elderly
How can you tell if an elderly person is suffering from mental illness or just signs of aging? It’s impossible to know for certain without a medical diagnosis from a physician. However, there are some red flags to watch out for. Whether you’re concerned about an elderly person you love or you’re a caretaker, early detection of any disease or disorder is important for the most effective treatments.
Keep in mind that some signs of aging can overlap with mental illness. Just because a person exhibits one or many of signs of mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean they’re suffering from mental illness. Still, here are ten symptoms to watch out for. If you notice any of them, consultation with a physician is a good idea:
- Sudden increase in forgetfulness. Yes, forgetting things can be a general cognitive decline associated with aging. However, it can also be the early signs of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s. Any person of any age can suffer with bouts of forgetfulness, which can also be brought on by stress or lack of sleep. However, if the forgetfulness seems sudden and/or extreme, it can be a sign of something more troubling. Bear in mind that forgetfulness can also be embarrassing, and the person can resist seeking out help for it.
- Paranoia. Unfortunately, seniors have a reason to be a little paranoid. Elder abuse is a very real thing, and aging (as well as seeing the world surpass you in terms of technological adaption) can be scary. However, if the paranoia seems severe, sudden, or out of norm for the person, it can be a sign of mental illness.
- Increased sleepiness or falling asleep in inappropriate situations. It’s a given that the elderly are more tired than their younger counterparts. They may take naps throughout the day, and some will sleep longer at night. However, what’s surprising to many is that the elderly often need less sleep at night. Instead, they often power nap throughout the day. Still, sleepiness and especially falling asleep at inappropriate times can be a sign of mental illness. It can also be a sign of Xanax abuse or opioid abuse, an epidemic in the US.
- Increase in swearing. If your grandfather has always had a potty mouth, swearing is probably nothing to be alarmed about. Also, some elderly people tend to let their inhibitions slide a bit with age. However, extreme or sudden swearing can sometimes be a sign of mental illness. It’s also an outlet that people can lean on when they’re frustrated, which can happen with age. As a rule of thumb, if an elderly person suddenly acts out of character—whether chronically or in small spurts—it’s a sign something is amiss.
- They start drinking more. Mental illness and alcohol abuse can go hand in hand. One can exacerbate the other. It’s possible that a hidden or managed mental illness is brought to the surface with an increase in alcohol use. Drinking in excess is damaging to anyone, but can be especially harmful to the elderly. Remember that alcoholism doesn’t play favorites in terms of age.
- They seem overly frail or thin. It’s a myth that eating disorders, the deadliest of all mental disorders, are reserved for young white women. The elderly can certainly suffer from eating disorders, including restriction. It’s common for the elderly to lose muscle mass (sarcopenia) but if they appear dangerously frail, it may be time to seek help. However, keep in mind that nobody can gauge a person’s health by simply looking at them.
- They slur their words. Slurring words can be a sign of both a mental and physical disorder (strokes are often accompanied by slurred words). Slurred words can also be a side effect of drinking or even prescription drugs. Keep an eye on this symptom and if it persists or recurs, it’s time to seek professional help.
- They become more of a hermit. The elderly aren’t always as active as they once were. However, avoiding social contact and stopping hobbies or outings they used to love can be a sign of mental illness such as agoraphobia. It’s important that everyone regularly engage with others for mental stimulation. Doing so can get tougher as we age, but should always be a priority.
- They can no longer manage their money. Lack of money management may be a sign of a mental illness, or it can be a sign of elder abuse (perhaps someone is taking advantage of them). However, this is usually only true if they’ve previously exhibited good money habits. Regardless, it’s critical to help the elderly protect their assets, and can include seeking help for mental illnesses.
- They have severe mood swings. Everyone has bad days, but if you’ve noticed an increase in mood swings, a mental disorder may be at the heart of the matter. Regulating moods is important for overall health.
If you’re worried about an elderly person in your life and don’t know how to broach the subject, let an expert mediate. Mental health is just as important as physical health, especially as we age.
Trevor is a freelance content writer and a recovering addict & alcoholic who's been clean and sober for over 5 years. Since his recovery began, he has enjoyed using his talent for words to help spread treatment resources, addiction awareness, and general health knowledge.