Breaking the Silence

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

Our Elder Orphans

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By contributing blogger Suzanne Walker.

“It’s paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone.” ― Andy Rooney

Yesterday was Christmas Day or at least that’s what the calendar showed. Before 1991, Miss Lib has celebrated Christmas and all the other holidays with her husband and family members. After her husband’s death in 1992, her children left the house. 25 years later, Miss Lib, now 83 yrs old rarely leaves her own home. Coming of age in the Great Depression and WWII, Lib learned self-reliance and fortitude.  Lib’s husband of many years died over two decades ago and her three adult children live over an hour’s drive away and seldom visit.

Like her family and neighbors did for decades, Miss Lib grew all her vegetables in her backyard garden. Five years ago, nature reclaimed its earth when Lib could not bend or kneel anymore. Lib’s neighbor checks in Miss Lib’s and noticed a considerable change in Miss Lib. She doesn’t leave the house anymore nor sit on the porch. Six months ago Lib was robbed at a fast-food drive thru. The con man knocked on Lib’s car window to tell her that her tire was getting flat, reached in and grabbed her purse. This con man targeted the elderly in church and stole their wallets. Following this theft, Miss Lib had trouble sleeping. The thief had Lib’s wallet and Lib believed he would find her. In a home invasion in the neighborhood, an elderly man was violently attacked. Earlier in the year, Miss Lib fell due overdosing on her pain medication and not eating. This fall resulted in a broken arm/elbow and surgery.

Gettin’ old ain’t for sissies” says Miss Lib. Despite her body riddled with arthritis, Lib doesn’t complain much nor ask for help. Accustomed to her independence, Miss Lib faces more challenges with a very limited support system. Libs often forgets her correct medication dosages and doesn’t cook anymore. The neighbor also thinks Lib forgets to eat. She used to eat her meals with her dog Walter, a poodle, who loved to bark at squirrels, but he died last year. Walter is now buried in the vegetable garden with the weeds.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC):

  • Social support serves major support functions, including emotional support (e.g., sharing problems or venting emotions), informational support (e.g., advice and guidance), and instrumental support (e.g., providing rides or assisting with housekeeping).
  • Adequate social and emotional support is associated with reduced risk of mental illness, physical illness, and mortality.
  • Adults age 65 or older were more likely than adults age 50–64 to report that they “rarely” or “never” received the social and emotional support they needed (12.2% compared to 8.1%, respectively).

There’s a new term for older persons with no support or family. It’s called an “elder orphan”. An elder orphan has no adult children, spouse or companion to rely on for company, assistance or input. About 29 percent (13.3 million) of older persons who live independently and alone. The majority are women (9.2 million, vs. 4.1 million men) who have fewer children, more childless marriages and more divorces compared to earlier generations. While Miss Lib has children, she is basically an “elder orphan” as she has very little support or companionship.

Social isolation and chronic health conditions can exact a toll on a person. More than 2 million of 34 million Americans age 65 + suffer from a form of depression. In addition, depression symptoms can be triggered by other chronic illnesses common in elderly, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, cancer and arthritis.

As we age, our family and friends die, and our support system shrinks. A third of widows/widowers show depressive symptoms right after the death of their spouse, and after one year, half remain depressed. 20% of persons 55 years + have mental health symptoms like anxiety, severe cognitive impairment, and mood disorders (e.g. depression or bipolar disorder). Seniors with depression have 50% higher healthcare costs than non-depressed seniors and untreated mental health issues are often correlated in cases of suicide.

It is alarming and clear: There’s a terrible cost to ignoring our elderly.

Cite: CDC’s The State of Mental Health and Aging in America

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