mental health Mandy Kloppers

Early Warning Signs of Mental Illness in the Elderly

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Mental illness impacts patients of all ages, as well as caregivers and families. The elderly are no exception, with the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia affecting how patients communicate. A classic example is The Iron Lady, available on DIRECTV STREAM, which includes scenes that show how the cognitive decline of Margaret Thatcher later in her life impacted her once-solid communication abilities.

Dame Thatcher’s symptoms depicted in the movie, including seeing long-dead loved ones, were dementia-related but are similar to symptoms that seniors with mental conditions might face. Dementia patients and elderly mental patients can have the same or similar symptoms, making discerning between the two important.

How do we discern the difference between our loved ones exhibiting age-related problems and having mental issues? What types of coping mechanisms are out there? Can seniors facing mental illness communicate effectively about what is going on?

Risk factors for mental health issues in seniors

Although mental illness can affect people of all ages, growing older carries several risk factors for mental illness. If your elderly loved one isn’t as social as they once were or lives alone, you might need to be watchful of risk factors.

A chronic illness, chronic pain, physical disability, and conditions that affect memory or concentration can affect a person’s mental health. Illnesses that cause dementia symptoms, medication interactions, and poor dietary habits are also risk factors for mental illness.

When a senior has had to cope with a loved one’s illness or death, this may also affect their mental health. Also, if an older adult has a history of drug or substance abuse, this can increase mental illness risks.

The good thing to know is that help is available for seniors struggling with mental illness. Identifying early warning signs makes it easier to help, so read on to learn more.

Warning sign #1: Physical symptoms without obvious causes

Some elderly people living with mental illness have physical symptoms unconnected to any other cause. However, these symptoms are common enough with other health problems that patients and caregivers may not identify as having their origins in mental illness. These symptoms may include:

  • Bowel habit changes
  • Digestive upsets
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Muscle pain or tension

Seniors living with these symptoms might brush them off as not being a big deal or attribute their symptoms to medications taken. However, this approach leaves many older adults needlessly struggling with mental illness.

Carers need to find the balance between respecting boundaries and making sure their loved one gets the help they need as soon as possible. Encouraging a visit to the doctor to rule out a new condition may help the patient.

Warning sign #2: Mood changes or swings

Depression, one of many mental issues affecting many seniors, often comes with noticeable personality changes. Your loved one may feel cheerful and optimistic one day and filled with despair the next. If these changes persist for more than a couple of weeks, following up with your loved one’s doctor may help.

Older people living with conditions such as Alzheimer’s or dementia may have more mood changes than most. However, seniors without cognitive issues may also have these symptoms if they have pain or other chronic problems.

Any otherwise unexplained mood changes could indicate a mental illness that requires treatment. At the very least, caregivers may need to rule out prescribed medications causing problems.

Warning sign #3: Changes in personal care and hygiene

Personal care routines often fall by the wayside in people with mental illnesses. One of the ways that this problem often becomes apparent is when seniors stop changing clothes, bathing or showering, or brushing their teeth. Other changes, like no longer applying makeup or shaving, might become typical.

Sometimes, the opposite is true, and a person with mental illness can demonstrate obsessive attitudes toward cleanliness. A person who has become obsessed with cleanliness might make life difficult for everyone around them, just as someone negligent about their appearance might become.

In either case, caregivers should get in touch with their loved one’s doctor. The sooner a person living with mental illness gets help, the better.

Warning sign #4: Feeling despair, unfounded guilt, and worthlessness

Depression is more common than many realize in seniors. Part of living with depression symptoms involves feelings such as:

  • Inappropriate guilt
  • Emptiness
  • Sorrow
  • Worthlessness
  • Despair

Although many older adults live with depression, it is not a typical part of ageing by any means. Some of the challenges more likely to affect seniors vulnerable to depression include:

  • Frustration with limited functions
  • Chronic health conditions more common in old age
  • The deaths of friends and loved ones

Warning sign #5: Withdrawing from social activities

Many people living with mental health issues may decide to withdraw from social activities. Withdrawal can include activities that a person is only partially interested in, as well as activities that were once a significant part of their life.

In many cases, social withdrawal will be one of the most obvious signs that something is wrong. There are different reasons people may withdraw from activities, depending on the condition. Older adults living with mental illness may reject games where they cannot remember the rules because of cognitive decline or large gatherings because they find crowds a problem.


The elderly live with mental illness, as younger people do as well, and in many cases, have situations that increase their chances of mental illness. However, some seniors are not able to communicate what they are feeling effectively, leaving it to caregivers to observe what is going on.

Some of the early warning signs of mental illness in the elderly include unexplained physical symptoms, mood changes, care and hygiene changes, depressed feelings, and social withdrawal. Identifying these signs before things progress much further is one of the best ways that people can help their loved ones navigate through the challenges of mental illness.


Mandy Kloppers
Author: Mandy Kloppers

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