Geriatric means relating to old people, especially with regard to health care. The term geriatrics comes from the Greek word geron meaning “old man” and iatrol meaning “healer.”

Geriatrics is the branch of health care and medicine specializing in aging and the care of older adults. Geriatric doctors have developed an approach to better work with aging adults by considering the big picture of a person’s health and life before diving into a specific medical problem.

They use a holistic and integrated approach for people with multiple chronic illnesses, rather than trying to treat each problem separately. A geriatrician also treats diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, sleep disorders and pain, all kinds of physical ailments as well as mental health issues that sometimes plague older adults. Thos include Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive difficulties such as anxiety, depression, bipolar, obsessive compulsive disorder, PTSD, schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality and schizophrenia.

According to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, other triggers for mental illness in the aging are alcohol and substance abuse, loss of a loved one, long term illness, physical disability, or loss of mobility, poor diet and medication interactions.

There are a number of clinical issues involved in treating seniors with new and lifelong mental health issues. A loved one may develop one of these conditions as they age, or they may have received a diagnosis long ago and remained stable on the same psychiatric medication for decades. In the latter case, however, their treatment plan may need to be adjusted as the person ages. The body processes these drugs differently; new conditions may develop when other medications are added to the mix.

Furthermore, it can be challenging for doctors to distinguish the symptoms of new or worsening mental illness from medication interactions or conditions like dementia. Mental health issues in the United States are very misunderstood.

“Mental health issues are denied, demonized, stigmatized, mocked, stereotyped, minimized, marginalized, judged, feared, danced round and rationalized in the media, public safety protocols, schools and conversations with family and friends,” says Connie Ward, Ph.D., of New Start Counseling Center in Fayetteville, Ga.

According to Ward, the diagnosis and treatment of a mental disorder becomes more complicated in an aging population because of the prevalence of multiple chronic conditions, multiple medications often being prescribed by multiple doctors, drug interactions, social isolation, limited mobility and increased emergency room visits with poor follow up.

Depression and anxiety are the two most common mental disorders. Older adults suffering from mood disorders also tend to complain of psychosomatic symptoms, such as persistent aches or pains, cramps and digestive problems that do not get better with treatment.

Medications may not always be the answer, and positive changes in their routine or care plan can be helpful. Sometimes seniors can be stubborn when it comes to changes that appear to threaten their sense of dignity or control. They may shoot down ideas that can improve their quality of life, such as in-home care or adult day care.

Ideas to keep the mind busy and may help reduce stress are arts and crafts – keeping the mind busy and the hands nimble – word puzzles, bingo, online interactive games, logic puzzles to help with out of the box thinking and jigsaw puzzles to stimulate the mind. Having friends and family with stimulating conversation is always a plus when trying to figure a situation out.

Above all, be honest with your doctor about any mental health issues you may be having because “mental illness is not a sin or a crime it’s an illness.”

“Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been,” said David Bowie.

Overfield is an advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Park County. (307) 250-2978

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