Elderly Mental Health Ignored Too Long

By Steve Adubato, Ph.D. Mental illness is an increasingly serious problem among older adults. It seems that everyone has an elderly family member who is either suffering from depression, Alzheimer’s or other mental illness. The effects of mental illness on the elderly are devastating, not just on the person suffering, but also on family members and friends who become frustrated and confused about where to turn and how to help. Many people believe that mental illness is simply part of the aging process, but recent research is concluding that isn’t necessarily true. Some mental health problems with seniors are preventable through increased physical activity, a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. Government, particularly on the state level and federal level, has not been particularly helpful to seniors with mental health problems. According to Robert Davison, who chaired former Governor Dick Codey’s task force on mental health, “The system doesn„t serve older people.” Davison points out that Medicare only reimburses 50% for mental health visits while physical illnesses are reimbursed at an 80% level. Davison and other mental health experts also believe that there is a subtle degree of discrimination among the elderly who suffer with mental illness. Dr. William Reichman, who is a geriatric psychiatrist at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, argues that there is an “inherent bias in serving the mental health needs of the elderly.” Again, Dr. Reichman points out inadequate Medicare reimbursement as a manifestation of this bias. Reichman and Davison say that in the healthcare equation, mental health for seniors is simply not a high priority for state and government health officials. But it is more than just government that must take responsibility for how shabbily we treat the elderly in this regard. We in the media have done a terrible disservice by under covering the issue of mental health of the elderly. Privately, television news directors and newspaper editors will say the issue is “just not sexy enough.” They will also say you need a prominent public face and name to put to the issue. To date, ironically, it is only been “60 Minutes” star Mike Wallace who has come closest to being a prominent public figure who has talked openly and eloquently about his battles of depression. Yet, not even “60 Minutes,” arguably the greatest investigative television news program of our time, has done an extensive examination of the problems, challenges and struggles of the elderly suffering from mental illness. But beyond the failures of the government and mainstream media to seriously take on this important mental health issue, we as private citizens need to do more. If the stigma associated with elderly mental illness is to ever go away, then we can no longer act ashamed of our parents and grandparents who silently suffer. If the elderly who are mentally ill cannot speak for themselves, then isn’t important enough for the rest of us, their children and grandchildren, to speak up for them? As caregivers and loving decedents shouldn„t we demand that government do more and the media show more? The issue is complicated and confusing, and maybe it is not “sexy.” But is that a good enough reason to not do more? Simply put, while there are some programs in place to help the elderly with mental illness, too many seniors are slipping through the cracks. Too many seniors don„t understand what assistance they qualify for and how to get it. There aren„t enough in-home health aides and we need to work harder to identify the elderly who become isolated, fearful and in many ways, disenfranchised. Maybe that„s not sexy, but it„s truly important. New Governor Jon Corzine appears to be the kind of chief executive who is aware of the bottom line while still caring about those who have the greatest need. His Health and Senior Services commissioner is Dr. Fred Jacobs, who has a history of demonstrating compassion and concern for the elderly. His department and the Corzine administration are in a prime position to help make a difference. As for the mainstream media, some television news executives and newspaper editors may be open to shedding more light on this growing problem that is bordering on a crisis. In a recent series I anchored on public television examining the issue of seniors and mental health, numerous colleagues in the media expressed a desire to do more. That effort cannot end here. Yet, the only way to really ensure credible and consistent media attention is through public pressure from average citizens who demand more for their elderly loved ones and others suffering unnecessarily. What are we waiting for? Haven„t the elderly given their families and out country enough to warrant more respect and attention in their time of need?

Elderly Mental Health Ignored Too Long