Resource Blog/Media/BHSF Exum 2024 Mental Health Month HERO2


Why Older Adults are Vulnerable to Mental Illness

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), families and caregivers need to be vigilant with the mental health of older adults, who are vulnerable to feelings of grief, social isolation or loneliness – all of which can trigger mental illness.

“As people age, they may experience certain life changes that impact their mental health, such as coping with a serious illness or losing a loved one,” the NIMH website states. “Although many people will adjust to these life changes, some may experience feelings of grief, social isolation, or loneliness. When these feelings persist, they can lead to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.”

With Mental Health Awareness Month kicking off its 75th year this May, Resource editors spoke with Amy Exum, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor and former Community Health Manager for Baptist Health who now manages the organization’s Technology & Digital initiatives. Ms. Exum touched on the special challenges older adults face when it comes to their mental health, and why it’s so important to keep active – physically, mentally and socially.

Amy Exum, LHMC, a licensed mental health counselor and Community Health Manager for Baptist Health


Resource: With the many physical challenges older adults must deal with, are mental health issues overlooked?


Amy Exum: It might be surprising to hear, but most older adults are mentally healthy and have lower levels of mental health issues as compared to other age groups. However, that doesn’t mean we can ignore mental health when treating older adults.


Stereotypes and misconceptions contribute to untreated or undiagnosed mental health issues for older adults. For instance, a common myth is that depression or cognitive decline is a normal part of aging. Although mild cognitive decline can be a natural part of aging, the level of decline does not typically interfere with daily life.  


As we age, we experience physical changes and health issues become more common. The American Psychological Association reports that approximately 92 percent of older adults have at least one chronic condition, whether it is obesity, heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease or Alzheimer’s disease. These medical issues can have similar if not the same symptoms as mental health diagnoses, which makes establishing an accurate diagnosis essential.


Resource: What are some of the common mental health issues faced by older adults?


Amy Exum: Globally, depression and dementia are some of the most common diagnoses. Anxiety, bereavement and substance use are also at the top of the list. In fact, substance use is often misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed in older adults.


Grief and loss can be especially challenging for the older generation. They can experience a loss in independence, physical capability and friendships. These cumulative losses can lead to higher levels of stress and an increase in health issues. 


Resource: How can this affect one’s ability to manage their daily life and live independently?


Amy Exum: People often believe that symptoms of mental health issues are purely “in the head,” but symptoms include fatigue, change of appetite, muscle tension, sleep problems and headaches to name a few. Any of the aforementioned symptoms can make it challenging to complete simply daily tasks like preparing a meal, exercising, bathing or driving. 


Resource: Can you offer some tips for older adults who want to maintain or improve their mental health?


Amy Exum: Many of the tips to maintain mental health are the same for older adults as for the rest of the population but particularly important for older adults are 1) having a strong support system, 2) pursuing hobbies, and 3) getting regular physical activity.


Maintaining regular medical appointments and taking medications as prescribed is important, as this can help prevent the development of chronic health issues. In addition, older adults and people of all ages can learn about enhancing their physical and mental health throughout the year at any of the hundreds of health fairs and festivals Baptist Health sponsors across the region.


And remember, fun and laughter are meant for all life stages, and engaging in activities that bring you joy and meaning is key to having good mental health.


Resource: How about those who care for older adults – what should they be looking out for?


Amy Exum: Noticeable changes in mood, energy level, appetite, sleeping patterns, are common red flags, as are irritability/anger and aggressive behavior. Be sure to ask medical providers if any of these symptoms could be caused by medication. Changes in prescriptions or a new medication regimen can often cause side effects that will subside but typically present as another issue. 


I would also add that you should always “go with your gut.” If something feels off to you or you notice something and can’t put your finger on it, don’t wait, schedule an appointment with your medical provider. You know your loved ones better than anyone else. Use that knowledge to help them.


Resource: Any other advice for caregivers of older adults?


Amy Exum: If you are a caretaker, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Burnout amongst caretakers is already high and continues to rise. It’s important to be there for the ones we love, but we can’t do that if we’re running on empty. If you can’t seem to find the time for yourself, however, schedule activities that both you and the one you’re caring for can partake in together. 


Baptist Health offers a variety of free in-person and virtual classes, so perhaps join a tai chi class or try chair yoga. Take a cooking class with a registered dietitian or join a breathwork session with behavioral health experts. Or try a simple change of scenery, an outing to the museum, or a day trip to a favorite spot. Anything you can do that helps you renew, refresh or recharge is helpful – whether it’s for both you and your loved one or just you alone.

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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