6/28/2022 | By Terri L. Jones

While mental health can be a very real issue for older adults, as real as for people of other age groups, problems among mental health therapy options can amplify the concerns.

At 83 years old, Tom had been an avid deep-sea fisherman all his life. In 2019, he suffered a stroke, weakening one side of his body and making him unstable even on stationary surfaces. By the time Tom felt strong enough to get back on a boat, COVID happened, and charter boats weren’t taking groups out.

So, two seasons passed without Tom dropping a single line in the water, and he was miserable without his favorite pastime. In 2021, he was all set to go fishing again, but when the morning of the trip arrived, he had an anxiety attack because it had been so long since he had fished and he was afraid he wouldn’t remember how. He cancelled his trip at the last minute. Since then, Tom has booked multiple fishing trips but has pulled out each time due to his anxiety. He’s also been uncomfortable going out to dinner with friends or traveling.

Seniors’ mental health needs

Tom’s situation isn’t uncommon. As the result of health issues, the loss of a loved one, changes in living situations, retirement, loneliness, and other factors, many older people struggle with mental health issues, especially anxiety and depression. The CDC estimates that 20 percent of those over 55 are experiencing some type of mental health issue. But despite this obvious need, 70 percent of those 55 and older with mood and anxiety disorders do not get the mental health help they need.

Part of the reason seniors often don’t get mental health therapy is because depression and anxiety are often considered a normal part of aging.

Sad woman in a bedroom. photo by Marcos Calvo Mesa, Dreamstime. While seniors’ mental well-being can be a very real problem, issues with mental health therapy options can amplify the issues.

“If young people complain about not being able to sleep, lack of energy and poor appetite, most doctors will suspect that their patients are suffering from depression. If an 80-year-old presents with the same symptoms, they may be overlooked, especially if other health problems take precedence,” according to The Pavilion psychiatric center.

Seniors are also reluctant to ask for help. “The greatest generation are the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps group,” Dr. Daniel Plotkin, a geriatric psychiatrist in Los Angeles told The New York Times.

Seniors with mental health concerns may think that they are too old to change (remember the old adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”?). They may be skeptical about the value of just talking to someone. And even when older patients do seek help, their negative attitudes can sabotage results or cause them to quit mental health therapy when they don’t see immediate progress.

Issues with therapy options for seniors

Sad senior man. photo by Russian Huzau, Dreamstime. While seniors’ mental well-being can be a very real problem, issues with mental health therapy options can amplify the issues.

Practitioners can present their own deterrent to care. Believing that seniors are too set in their ways to respond to therapy or that they don’t have as much time to see results as their younger clients, some mental health professionals aren’t eager to accept older patients. Case in point: A woman in her 80s sought out therapy after her husband suffered a heart attack. Two dozen practices turned her away, claiming that they didn’t accept patients her age, The New York Times reported.

And while there are many cases of dementia and depression in senior living communities, more than 40 percent of all assisted living communities provide no mental health services, according to a report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Related: Medicare Changes to Mental Health Coverage

Finding help for seniors’ mental health

Therapists and counselors who specialize in working with older adults are known as “geriatric counselors.” These counselors may have a degree in psychology or social work and work in private practice or at a hospital, local senior center, or long-term care facility.

When searching for a counselor for mental health therapy, ask your primary care physician for a referral. Friends and family may also be able to offer recommendations. Or consult the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Behavior Health Treatment Services Locator Tool for options in your area.

Before making a choice, call multiple practitioners and ask them about their experience working with seniors. Confirm that they accept Medicare or that their fees are within your budget. If mobility or transportation is an issue, ask if they offer telehealth.

Related: Prioritizing mental health in retirement

Small steps

Just like many of his peers, Tom was reluctant to admit he had a problem, and his wife had to insist that he talk to a therapist. Over the past year of regular sessions, Tom’s anxiety has eased somewhat, and he and his wife are occasionally going out with friends again. He’s also planned an overnight trip to spend time with his great-grandson.

With each small step, Tom feels better about the next one. His family sees a fishing trip just a couple steps down the road.

Related: Artificial Intelligence (AI) mental health apps

Article updated Jan. 10, 2024, to reflect Medicare mental health coverage changes (removing previous Medicare information and adding link to changes as of Jan. 1, 2024. 

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones