Breaking the Silence

Website for the American Mental Health Counselors Association's Breaking the Silence initiative to address mental health stigma.

My Grandfather

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By contributing blogger Dr. LaMarr Edgerson

During this month, as we celebrate Father’s Day, I think of my grandfather. He was the primary father figure in my life as I grew up. My grandpa was the strongest man I’ve ever known. He served as an Army enlisted man during World War II and somehow made it through the entire conflict without a scratch. After discharging he moved his wife and five children from the South to the North, then took a blue-collar job for the Chrysler Corp until he was of age to retire. Being approximately 6’3, at least 225 pounds, hard as nails and with an overbearing personality, my grandfather could be a very intimidating figure. When he spoke we listened and that was the end of the discussion. It was he who stressed education the most to all of us.

As the aging process would have it, my grandfather began to change as he approached his senior years. His large frame shrunk and his hard side softened. He smiled more and growled less during his later years. About a year or two before he passed things really began to change. By this time I had left home and was an enlisted man in the USAF. One particular time while home on leave me, my son, and both my grandparents were sitting in the TV room talking when my grandmother got up to leave the for something. My grandfather looked at me and asked a few questions about my son who was only about three years old at the time. Then, he asked the oddest question. He asked, “Son, who was that woman?” For a moment I thought he was kidding, but then I realized he was serious. He had no idea who his wife of over 50 years was.

That was my first encounter with Alzheimer’s. While I had heard of this disease I had no experience or reference for it. I was a very long way away from any type of degree. My family had told me of my grandfather’s odd behaviors, but experiencing it first hand was very different from hearing about it.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. It is a general term for memory loss and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. While it does affect the elderly more so than other groups it is not part of the aging process. Reportedly, it can hit a person as young as 40 or 50 years of age. Surprisingly, Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. The National Alliance for Mental Illness estimates about 11 percent (approximately five million) seniors currently struggle with this very confusing and frightening mental health disease.

As we all age many things begin to change. As a 51 year old male this is something I can certainly attest to. Unless you’re 21 years old, I’m sure you can also agree that the things you used to be able to do with ease take a little more time these days.

While much focus on the physical side of the aging process exist, there’s not nearly enough attention paid to the mental side of getting older, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. The American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) is dedicated to bringing additional awareness and attention to all forms of mental health issues for all human beings.

The CDC estimates that about 20 percent of adults aged 55 or older have experienced some type of mental health concern, but nearly one in three of those seniors do not receive treatment. From my perspective, as a clinical mental health counselor, I can confidently say those figures are very low.

As we step into the golden years of life there are many complications that can accompany us into this final stage of the lifespan. As previously mentioned, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are two conditions. There are many other potential challenges as well: retirement, depression, grief and loss, alcohol or substance abuse, traumatic stress, medication complications or dependence and possibly even elderly abuse from the hands of caretakers – to name a few. Both the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) report that there is an insufficient supply of trained professionals available to provide mental and behavioral health services to older adults.

According to AMHCA, the organization that I am proudly associated with, clinical mental health counseling is a distinct profession with national standards for education, training and clinical practice. Clinical mental health counselors are highly skilled professionals who provide flexible, consumer-oriented therapy. They combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical, problem-solving approach that creates a dynamic and efficient path for change and problem resolution.

Clinical mental health counselors offer a full range of services, including:

  • Assessment and diagnosis
  • Psychotherapy
  • Treatment planning and utilization review
  • Brief and solution-focused therapy
  • Alcoholism and substance abuse treatment
  • Psychoeducational and prevention programs
  • Crisis Management

Even more importantly than what has been listed above clinical mental health counselors have the ability, education and expertise to assist overwhelmed family members in the proper care of their parents and grandparents as they enter the golden age and face the challenges that are sure to come. My family certainly could have used the expertise of a trained professional when we were trying to understand and help my grandfather. If you or a loved one is going through the challenge of caring for an elderly adult and you feel very confused and overwelmed take a look at what clinical mental health counselors may be able to do for you. It may be one of the best decisions you ever made. If you are a clinical mental health counselor and enjoy helping the elderly, this is an area of specialty that could benefit from additional qualified clinicians.

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