Senior Health

11/1/2021 | By Seniors Guide Staff

The Gift of My Diagnosis: Adult ADHD

by Kait Leonard

One day, not long after turning 60, I froze in the middle of my kitchen. I looked from the coffee filter filled with grounds on the counter, to the laundry heaped in front of the washer, and finally to the empty water glass in my hand. I couldn’t decide what I was supposed to do. So I cried. Then convinced there was something very wrong with my brain, I made an appointment to see my doctor.

Sitting across from the physician who didn’t look old enough to understand cognitive decline, I waited as he typed something into his laptop. I fought the urge to run from the office.

“I’d like to assess you for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” he finally said.

I laughed out loud.

Having worked with special needs children, I knew a lot about ADHD. Kids receive the diagnosis in elementary school, usually after driving teachers bonkers for a year or two. They get prescribed an amphetamine, which makes them better, unless it doesn’t. The idea that I might have the condition seemed ludicrous, but my doctor would not budge. So I figured we’d rule it out and move on to the real problem, which I was convinced was age-related.

Getting tested for ADHD as an adult is tricky. I was given a series of questions to rank – Never, Sometimes, or Often – based on how frequently I engage in a particular behavior. That’s all there is to it.

Yeah, right!

As I read each question, I couldn’t help trying to figure out what the “normal” answer might be. My internal process went something like this:

Clearly, this question wants to see if I multitask efficiently. I would start to check “Always,” but then stop. Multitasking makes it look like I can’t focus on one thing. Mark “Never,” I advised myself. Finally, confused and frustrated, I’d check “Sometimes.”

Afterwards, my doctor smiled with that kind, all-knowing expression physicians have just before they tell you something is very wrong. And it was. The assessment revealed that I have ADHD. I left the office in shock, holding a prescription for Adderall and a fistful of pamphlets.

What now?

Over the next couple of days, I tried to make sense of this news. How could I have missed it? I have a master’s degree in psychology, a special education teaching credential, and years of experience.

But, in actuality, it was clear why I’d missed my own diagnosis and why so many other adults do, too.

When I was a kid, ADHD didn’t really exist. Boys who misbehaved were just naughty, and some girls simply talked too much. The disorder wasn’t even added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1968, and many more years passed before it entered mainstream discourse. An awareness of adult ADHD is only now becoming more common. No wonder I had never looked at my own challenges through this lens.

Following that doctor’s visit, so many emotions paraded through my brain. No one wants to hear that they’re neurodivergent. On the other hand, I certainly didn’t prefer the idea that my problems were connected to age-related cognitive decline.

Still, I fought the diagnosis. How could it be so? I’m a successful professional with multiple academic degrees. But I had to admit that none of my accomplishments had come easily, and I still don’t feel like I fit in socially. Eventually, I couldn’t escape the fact that my brain is different.

What does it mean to have ADHD as an adult?

From then, so much made sense. I hadn’t been simply a little girl who talked too much or a wild teenager. I wasn’t an overly hormonal young adult. And I’m not a crazy lady now. I have ADHD, as do approximately 4% of adult Americans. And that number is probably low, since many adults are never assessed. The possibility of ADHD is frequently overlooked when older adults complain of forgetting things, experience difficulty maintaining a train of thought, or report that they have trouble focusing on books or television shows. Doctors often respond to these symptoms with statements that begin, “Given your age,” and that’s as far as the diagnostics go.

On top of this, adults with unrecognized ADHD regularly get diagnosed with social anxiety, generalized anxiety, or depression. But underlying ADHD may be the real issue. The reason for the confusion is simple. People with ADHD often experience anxiety and depression as a result of regularly exhibiting behavior that falls outside societal norms. Many people with ADHD talk too much or too fast. They may interrupt conversation, jumping in to express their racing ideas. Some individuals appear not to focus while others are speaking, making them appear disinterested.

Conversation partners often respond with eye rolls, critical comments, and eventually social avoidance. The person with ADHD regularly hears, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to finish my point,” or “I’m sorry if I’m boring you.”

All of this can lead to anxiety, especially around social engagements. And if the social anxiety progresses, it isn’t unusual for self-isolation and then depression to follow. But treating these conditions doesn’t address the underlying problem.

Can you see yourself in this story?

So what is an older adult to do if they experience the kinds of cognitive issues that lead them to fear the worst?

First, think back. ADHD is a lifelong neurological disorder. Though there can be periods of relative worsening, it doesn’t come out of the blue. Then, if symptoms have been present for a while, consult a physician who has experience treating adults with ADHD.

Though I hadn’t recognized it, the behaviors that led me to suspect age-related cognitive decline had actually always been part of my life. When I was younger, I boasted about my ability to multitask, scoffing at people who needed to do only one thing at a time. Really, I was just scattered. My achievements came from putting in longer hours than I would have needed to if I had been more focused.

I’ve also faced problems all my life due to verbal impulsivity. My fifth-grade teacher once became so frustrated with me that in front of the whole class she said, “Please shut your mouth and give me a rest.” Since then, I’ve had supervisors say similar things, though thankfully in slightly more tactful ways.

Clearly, my cognitive issues are not a result of aging. But aspects of my post-retirement life exacerbated the symptoms. One problem for me was no longer having work deadlines to keep me on track. Without that imposed schedule, I was on my own to organize and complete tasks. Every day, I started twice as many things as I completed and watched in horror, as my life spun further and further out of control.

Receiving the ADHD diagnosis opened up resources, support, and the appropriate medication to address my condition. There is no cure, but I’m doing better. Understanding my disorder has not only calmed my fears of cognitive decline, it has also helped me to reframe so many difficult memories.

And now, when I’m met with looks of concern or judgment, I can smile and say, “It’s not me. It’s my brain.”

Kait Leonard holds graduate degrees in literature and psychology. She is a staff writer for The Canyon Chronicle newspaper and contributes articles on aging, psychology, and homelessness to online publications. Her short fiction has recently been published in Six Sentences, Every Day Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Kait shares her Los Angeles home with five parrots and her gigantic American bulldog.

Seniors Guide Staff

Seniors Guide has been addressing traditional topics and upcoming trends in the senior living industry since 1999. We strive to educate seniors and their loved ones in an approachable manner, and aim to provide them with the right information to make the best decisions possible.

Seniors Guide Staff