When most of us imagine our senior years, we like to picture rest, relaxation, and enjoying some well-deserved time with our families and loved ones.

For some, the reality of retirement really is a dream come true. Sadly, the golden years do not always get easier. Recognizing and responding to the mental health needs of our seniors is an important task for all Canadians.

Seniors are faced with unique challenges. The obvious concerns of health and loss of loved ones are important factors in mental health, but even just retiring can present problems.

Framework flowchart for seniors' mental health

Growing old disrupts routines, social lives, income, and can interfere with one’s sense of purpose. For these reasons and more, a little over one quarter of older Canadians suffer from mental health problems, compared to a fifth of the general population. In 2016, that meant more than 1.8 million people over 60 were living with a mental illness in Canada.

“Poor mental health isn’t the inevitable consequence of aging,” says Louise Bradley, Mental Health Commission of Canada President and CEO. “But mental illness among seniors is largely misunderstood. Anxiety, depression, and substance abuse are just as common in the over 65 set as dementia or cognitive impairments.”

Many seniors feel uncomfortable asking for help. Pre-existing issues can become even harder as spouses and support networks pass on.  The act of moving to assisted living can be

incredibly hard, and is often associated with anxiety. Senior citizens are also the most likely age group to suffer physical abuse.

Sadly, these problems combine to create especially high depression and suicide rates in seniors. That said, it is important to remember that while transition to old-age is a period of high risk, it is also an opportunity for preventive intervention.

While society is making strides to address mental health, the causes and symptoms of mental health problems in seniors are unique and can differ from younger people. Keep an eye out for the following:

  • Loss of interest in hobbies or pleasurable pastimes
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Loss of self-worth
  • Weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Fixation on death
  • Fatigue and/or difficulty falling asleep

If you become concerned about a senior in your life, let them know that they are not alone; that there are people who want to help them and that they are valued. Some especially effective approaches include:

Suggest a change in routine

Isolation can lead to depression, so promote involvement in activities within their community. Studies show that seniors who feel more in control of their lives tend to be happier and live longer.

Present options for counselling and therapy

Aging and life changes can be a difficult and there is nothing wrong with needing some guidance to get through it. Openly share counselling agency brochures and websites with the seniors in your life.

Optimize family time

Visit and spend quality time with your parents and grandparents. We all need community and to know that we are loved.

We all have seniors in our lives we love and appreciate, and can be grateful for the change to return the favour after all they’ve done for us. And remember, the nicer we make it for them today, the better it will be for us tomorrow.