The Art of Aging

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When most people think of aging they see a glass that is half-full.  No doubt, older adults (typically defined as persons 65 years of age or older) contend with a range of challenges, most of them tied to increasing health problems.  However, challenges exist at each stage of the lifespan.  Adolescence is no picnic for most.  What is not known by most of the general public or even by many health care professionals is that the majority of older adults lead happy, engaged, and meaningful lives.  Fifty years of gerontology research has proved those facts (gerontology is the field that studies aging).  Despite the reality that most older adults have one or more chronic health problems, the vast majority have active lives.  Among people 70 years of age and older, 88% have regular contact with family or neighbors, 92% have contact with relatives with whom they don’t live, 50% attend church, temple or other religious events, and 65% are satisfied with the social activities in which they participate (Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, 2000).  Older adults are very diverse and include all racial and ethnic groups, levels of financial resources, marital statuses, religious backgrounds, sexual orientations, veteran status, and most other characteristics that define people.  Gerontologists often say it is difficult to generalize about older adults because as people get older they become more diverse.

Most older adults do not have mental health problems.  For example, rates of major depression (the most severe kind of clinical depression) are lower in older adults compared to younger adults.  The one mental health problem which is much higher in older adults compared with younger adults is dementia (the progressive loss of mental abilities such as Alzheimer’s disease).  The most common types of mental health problems seen by mental health care professionals among older adults are depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment which includes dementia. Common problems that are discussed in therapy are making life transitions (e.g., becoming a caregiver, moving to a new residence, dealing with the onset of health problems), difficulties with others (e.g. marital problems, conflicts with adult children), and loss (e.g. grieving the death of a loved one).  Scientific research has found that older people generally benefit from treatments for mental health problems as much as do younger adults.  Common treatments include psychotherapy and medication such as an antidepressant.  The first choice of mental health treatments by older adults is psychotherapy.  Family members often play a critical role in providing support to older people with mental health problems.

Geropsychologists are psychologists who specialize in the treatment of older adults.  They provide services in many settings including private offices, outpatient clinics, mental health day programs, medical and mental health inpatient services, and in long-term care facilities.  Most geropsychologists are impressed by the resilience of older adults in handling late life problems including mental health problems.

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Gregory A. Hinrichsen, PhD

Clinical Associate Professor, Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University