Older Americans face stark mental and behavioral health challenges.
According to data prepared by the Center for Community Solutions, community-dwelling seniors have much higher rates of diagnosis of mood disorder than members of the general population, at 12% for females between the ages of 55 and 64 and nearly 6% for males. Rates of anxiety and personality disorders are even higher in these populations. All told, a near-majority of Americans over the age of 55 have diagnosed mental health needs.
Unfortunately, many older Americans lack access to quality, affordable behavioral healthcare. This is a significant challenge both for these Americans and their loved ones, and for the behavioral health industry as a whole.
The good news is that the industry understands what needs to be done to meet this challenge. The solution begins with these seven action items for providers and community leaders.
Improve Telehealth Coverage and Access
Led by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the pandemic forced a long-overdue shift in how healthcare payers treat telehealth services. Among the biggest beneficiaries of this shift were seniors, who are more likely to be homebound or have mobility issues that interfere with traditional outpatient care delivery.
More work needs to be done around behavioral telehealth, however. Homebound individuals might now have an easier time consulting with primary care providers and even specialists from the comfort of home, but behavioral telehealth remains a weak spot due in part to provider shortages and network issues.
Offer Better In-Person Treatment Options (Inpatient and Outpatient)
Telehealth alone can’t close the mental healthcare gap for seniors. Behavioral health systems need to offer better in-person treatment options, both inpatient and outpatient. With the exception of a few patient-focused systems like Oceans Healthcare, mental health providers remain oriented toward larger population centers at the expense of small and midsize cities, not to mention rural areas. That leaves rural and small-town seniors to travel hours — and perhaps stay overnight — for outpatient needs that can’t be addressed by telehealth.
Increase Memory Care Access and Quality
The memory care industry has expanded amid a dramatic increase in need for its services, but it’s not even close to keeping pace with expected future demand. The mental health industry can’t truly address seniors’ needs without redoubled investment in serving the needs of those with cognitive impairments through better outpatient care and expanded inpatient and community-based capacity.
Invest in Communities With High Senior Populations
Seniors living in supportive, amenity-rich communities have better self-reported mental health overall and demonstrate better mental health outcomes than comparable populations in less well-served communities. It follows that targeted investments to improve quality of life in communities with high senior populations will also improve mental health outcomes — and general health outcomes as well.
This isn’t the sole responsibility of the mental health industry, to be sure. But the industry is well-positioned to credibly advocate for seniors on this point and to identify targeted interventions — like programming and amenities that reduce social isolation — proven to improve outcomes.
Knit Together Behavioral and Non-Behavioral Health Services for Older Adults
Just as important as high-quality-of-life, amenity-rich communities to seniors’ mental health outcomes is a holistic, whole-patient approach to healthcare delivery. Due to lingering stigma around seeking mental healthcare and a tendency toward overspecialization and siloing of expertise, seniors aren’t always able to address all of their primary health concerns at a single point of care. If and when that changes, seniors’ health outcomes can and will improve.
Invest in Mental Health Awareness and Education Campaigns for Seniors and Their Loved Ones
The stigma around seeking mental healthcare is real, and it’s not going away. The best remedy is education — for patients themselves, for loved ones with whom they may consult for health-related guidance, and for caregivers and guardians of patients who can’t make healthcare decisions alone.
It Takes a Village to Address Seniors’ Behavioral Health Needs
Older Americans’ mental and behavioral health challenges have not arisen in a vacuum. They are influenced by a complex array of socioeconomic trends and are made more acute by the fact that more and more adults are living into their 80s, 90s, and beyond.
Fortunately, we understand the solutions to these challenges. Improvements in access to remote and in-person care will go a long way. Likewise, seniors can and will benefit from improved access to memory care, and higher-quality memory care overall. Efforts to reduce stigma around mental health diagnosis and treatment and to combat social isolation help as well.
Still, it will take a sustained and long-term effort to improve mental healthcare and mental health outcomes for older adults. We’ll all need to do our part.