Senior Mental Health: How to Age Well Mentally and Emotionally

Medically reviewed by Dr. Mark Hrymoc, M.D.

The technical age for being a senior is 62, or retirement age. Some say 65 makes you a senior, which correlates with the age a person qualifies for Medicare. The World Health Organization identifies seniors as anyone over 60 when discussing mental health. Among that group, 20% struggle with a mental health or neurological disorder. 

Americans over 65 make up 16% of the population. Sadly, this population accounts for a higher percentage of total suicides, 19%, according to reports. Unfortunately, substance misuse is also increasing among older adults, with over one million adults over 65 having a substance use disorder.

The AARP research team conducted a survey on people 50 and older. In the two weeks before the survey, 45% of the participants reported having anxiety, 31% felt depressed or hopeless, and 52% had sleep disturbances. Symptoms like these reduce quality of life for our seniors.

Mental Health and Aging

You’ve likely heard people refer to an older adult who isn’t acting like they always have as “losing his marbles” or “she must be in menopause.” These are not signs of aging, however. It’s essential to pay attention to any new thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, and instead of dismissing them, get help for what could be a mental health disorder.

Signs of Mental Illness In Older Adults

Look for the following signs and symptoms:

  • Experiencing changes in eating, sleeping, and mood
  • Increasing feelings of worry, fear, anger, confusion, etc.
  • Long periods of sadness and depression
  • Misusing drugs or alcohol 
  • Making comments about harming themselves or wishing they weren’t here
  • Struggling with intrusive memories, thoughts, or voices
  • Isolating themselves from others and spending more time alone
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Making unusual or inappropriate purchases
  • Missing bill payments, appointments, medication doses, etc.
  • Having unusual physical aches, pains, bruises, injuries, or accidents

Most Common Mental Health Disorders in Older Adults

The mental health disorders affecting older adults differ from what other age groups experience. Research shows that 4.9% of older adults struggle with agoraphobia, 3.8% with panic disorder, 3.1% with generalized anxiety disorder, 2.9% have a specific phobia, and 1.3% with social anxiety disorder.

Depression is another common mental health disorder among older adults. Experts claim that the more assistance an older person needs to care for themselves, the higher their depression. One report suggests older up to 5% of people living independently in a community setting are depressed. They also claim 11.5% of hospitalized older adults and 13.5% of those requiring home healthcare are depressed.

People over 60 may experience comorbid mental health issues, meaning they have more than one mental illness. Or they may experience less common mental health symptoms, including the following:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Personality disorder
  • Substance use disorder
  • Schizoaffective disorder
  • Dissociative disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Eating disorder

The good news for older adults is that all their mental health symptoms are treatable. Antidepressant use, for example, is on the rise, with 17.7% of older women and 8.4% of older men taking them. Many older people receive antidepressant prescriptions from primary doctors when they should see a psychiatrist.

Mental Health Treatments for Older Adults

Interventions to help older adults improve mental health differ from those used with other age groups. The treatment process should begin with an assessment by a mental health professional. Below are evidence-based treatments that may be part of an older adult’s treatment plan.

Assertive Community Treatment (ACT)

ACT aims to create a collaborative team of professionals who work together to provide treatment decisions for an older person, and provide the services themselves. Goals with ACT include helping clients adhere to their medication schedule, remain in treatment for 18 months or longer, and begin treatment within 90 days after the assessment.

Cognitive Behavioral Social Skills Training (CBSST)

Simply put, CBSST is cognitive behavioral therapy combined with social skills training. Goals include helping an older person maintain independence and quality of life. They focus on managing medication, social skills, communication, staying organized, transportation, and managing their finances.

Trauma-Focused Therapies

Since post-traumatic stress disorder affects people of all ages, trauma-focused therapies should be available to everyone. Trauma-focused treatments include eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Trauma Resiliency Model.

Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy (KAP)

KAP is a treatment for older persons who have tried other treatments but had no success. Although ketamine has been around for decades, it is now making a comeback for treating severe mental illnesses. KAP can be especially beneficial for someone having suicidal thoughts.

Linking Older Adults with Resources

Part of mental health treatment may involve linking older adults with community resources for added support. Each older client will need different resources. Some may only require one or two, and others may need many more. Resources found to benefit older adults include the following:

  • Mental health support groups for depression, anxiety, PTSD
  • Substance Use support groups, such as AA or NA
  • Medication management
  • Transportation
  • Case management
  • Family Therapy
  • Social support services
  • Inpatient or intensive outpatient care 
  • Alternative mental health therapies


The older adult population has mental health concerns that may not affect those under 60. They also have more comorbid conditions, including psychological and physical health problems. Getting them services at a treatment facility, like the Mental Health Center, can improve their quality of life in their later years.