ELDERLY MENTAL HEALTH: ‘Unprecedented Explosion’ On Way
A wave of geriatric mental health issues is poised to sweep the nation as the Baby Boomer generation moves into old age, an 11-member panel of experts warns in a "consensus statement" published in Tuesday's Archives of General Psychiatry. The teenagers and young adults of the '60s and '70s moving into retirement in the next decade-and-a-half will face a host of psychiatric disorders including substance abuse, late-onset schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and depression, the psychiatrists note. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the experts are predicting that cases of mental illness among those 65 and over will triple in future years, peaking at about 15 million in 2030. All told, by 2030 the number of seniors with such disorders will have skyrocketed 275% from 1970, compared to a jump of only 67% in the 30-44 age bracket. Because "the health system already serves mentally ill older adults poorly," many mental health experts are concerned that the wave will completely overwhelm the current system, leaving millions of elderly without care. Dilip Jeste, director of geriatric psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego, said, "Mental illness in the elderly is underdiagnosed and undertreated. If we do nothing about it, the cost will be social disaster."
Your Parents on Drugs?
Psychiatrists are particularly worried about the effect substance abuse will have on Baby Boomers' mental health as they age. In past generations, drug and alcohol use by the elderly has been minimal -- less than .1% of current seniors had used an illegal drug within the last month (compared to 3.5% of 18- to 24-year-olds), according to a recent government study. But "that may start to change as survivors of the drug culture that spawned in the '60s and '70s reach old age ... The latest cross-generational data on drug-taking behavior 'suggest that some Baby Boomers have continued to use illicit drugs as they age ... and due to their sheer numbers, we can expect larger numbers of current drug users to reach age 65.'"
Dealing with the Rush
The expert panel suggests a dedicated, 15-25 year research course "to retool medical schools and health providers" to cope with the psychiatric problems "expected to beset aging Baby Boomers." They recommend that more specialists be trained to treat geriatric psychiatric problems and that health plan restrictions on drugs and outpatient care be relaxed. They also mention a need to eliminate the social stigma attached to mental disorders, which "tends to discourage people from seeking treatment" (Hall, 9/15).