I’ve always gotten along well with older people. With my Mom being the youngest sibling in a huge Midwestern family, I got used to being the youngest in a group from the time I was a little kid.
I used to romanticize the idea of becoming an old man. Retirement, a rocking chair and excusable grumpiness all sounded like a good deal to me. I couldn’t wait to fulfill my lifelong dream of being able to yell “you kids get off my lawn” and read on my porch all day.
But that was fantasy, and a pretty cliché one, because if there’s one thing I’ve seen over the past few years, it’s this: Growing old is hard.
I’ve watched as older family members who used to be athletes can now barely stand without assistance. I’ve watched an elderly couple be harassed in front of hundreds of Thanksgiving travelers because they couldn’t keep up with the pace of airport security. I’ve watched people who have known me for 22 years forget my name, and not in a funny way.
That has all been enough to make me not look forward to growing old, but also fear it. Watching how mental illness has affected the people I love has made me realize how neglected our older generations are by the younger ones when it comes to assisting them and treating their conditions.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 20 percent of adults older than 60 suffer from mental or neurological disorders. Despite that prevalence, a 2012 study by the Institute of Medicine found that American seniors are “woefully lacking in doctors, nurses and other health workers trained for their special needs.”
Part of this comes down to the inadequate number of health care professionals qualified to deal with the complex issue of mental illness in seniors. The same Institute of Medicine study emphasized that Americans over the age of 65 are almost always dealing with another physical condition in addition to any mental health issues, which can essentially distract or delay physicians from treating the same patient’s mental illness.
On top of that, there are variables that elderly people generally deal with more often, including the deterioration of their physical capabilities (such as mobility) and the perceived lowering of their social and economic statuses following retirement, that can contribute to mental health issues.
Our society is not one that is necessarily accommodating to seniors. The world is designed for young people, and many times, seniors are unfairly expected to either adjust to the pace of everything around them or get out of the way.
To me, it’s easy to see how the natural realities of growing older coupled with a society that only keeps moving more and more rapidly could contribute to the high numbers of seniors requiring mental health care.
According to the World Health Organization, the proportion of the world’s population over the age of 60 will grow from 12 percent to 22 percent between 2015 and 2050. That is a massive increase, and the way that we treat our seniors today will set the precedent for how they will be treated down the road, including when it comes to their mental health, and it needs to be a priority.
However, the reality is that these people are often swept to the side.
It starts with how seniors are represented in our society. Pop culture loves to mock the “crazy aunt” or the “weird old homeless guy on the corner” archetypes. The media coverage whenever a celebrity has a public mental health issue is often clumsy and insensitive. Very few mainstream movies or TV shows feature an elderly cast or even main character.
Dismissing these people as “crazy” or less valuable than younger people is both disrespectful and inhumane at a certain point. I don’t even say that as a politically correct statement — it’s an honest statement. I used to think that the trope of the “crazy old person” was funny until mental health conditions began affecting my older family members, friends and even myself after sustaining a traumatic brain injury my senior year of high school.
Simply put, the brain is just too important to be laughed off, and our society’s seniors and their mental health needs do not deserve to be pushed aside. When your mental health is at stake, it takes a community around you to help find solutions. No generation is worth less than another, and increasing mental health resources and coverage for seniors needs to be made a national priority.