Seniors Cope Well With Age, But Many Need Mental Health Services, Says UMass Amherst Psychologist

AMHERST, Mass. - In spite of what most people believe, your elderly mother or father may be better at coping with life’s problems than you are, according to Patricia A. Wisocki, a clinical psychologist, researcher, and member of the faculty of the University of Massachusetts psychology department. Wisocki is the author of more than 50 journal articles as well as a book on psychological interventions for the elderly, based on 25 years of studying the problems and behavior of older Americans. She has found that, although they are underserved in areas of mental health, most seniors have “come to grips with what it means to be old.”

“We find that, in general, college students are bigger worriers than people in their 80s,” says Wisocki. “With age comes an ability to cope with the stresses and worries of life. After we’ve succeeded at getting through some of life’s rough spots, we learn to accept what comes along. That doesn’t mean older people don’t have problems, but those problems might not be what you would expect.”

According to her research, when the elderly do worry, they worry about the same things people of all ages worry about – their family, health, and finances. “But, unlike the young, older people don’t spend much time worrying about being rejected, looking unattractive, or other social concerns,” explains Wisocki. Not surprisingly, those who worry the most tend to be those in the poorest health.

In spite of their generally positive attitude, Wisocki is concerned that many serious problems of the elderly are not being addressed. She says society as a whole lacks an understanding of and appreciation for older people. Many family members, and even most physicians, do not recognize mental illness when they see it. Elderly people themselves are reluctant to seek psychological help, even when they believe they need it, because they grew up in an era when doing so would be a sign of personal weakness.

Wisocki says, even without such obstacles, there are few psychotherapy resources available for the elderly, in spite of research that shows older people respond well to both behavioral and cognitive therapy. “The reality of mental health services for the elderly is strikingly disproportionate to the estimated numbers of people who need it,” she says.

Wisocki cautions adult children not to rely on physicians to recognize serious psychological problems in their elderly parents. “Many doctors tend to medicate their elderly patients instead of referring them to psychologists.”

Wisocki admits that the elderly are not easy to diagnose, in part because they often suffer from multiple physical problems that appear to require more urgent attention than any psychological difficulties. Nonetheless, she says, there are some important danger signals family members should watch for in their aging parents:

* Hoarding. When elderly people refuse to throw out old newspapers, clothes, broken trinkets, or even food, something may be wrong. Wisocki says not to assume they are just being resourceful because they survived The Great Depression. This could be a symptom of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. “Hoarding is a major public health problem in many towns and cities where old people store piles of useless material and collect numerous animals as pets, sometimes to the point where they can’t move around comfortably in their own homes.”

* Lack of socialization. Wisocki believes a good social network is the key to happiness in old age, but, she says, a lot of old people don’t know how to socialize. “Old people often need to learn new skills to help them make new friends, which is especially important after they’ve lost loved ones. When people become socially isolated because they don’t drive or work, they might lose the social skills they once had.” Wisocki encourages adult children to make sure their parents are as mentally and physically active as possible. She also encourages families to be attentive to their elders’ fears, and not to be quick to write off strange behavior as simply a sign of old age.

* Lack of what they need to stay safe and healthy. In addition to simple assistive devices such as nightlights and handrails in the bathroom, older people often need more expensive equipment, special clothing, or specially designed household appliances, but won’t buy them for themselves. She says, “Old people need to take better care of themselves, which could mean they need to spend more money on themselves than they are used to. Sometimes the elderly refuse to buy new things because they want to make sure there is money left over for their children and grandchildren, or else they’ve been brought up to believe a person should be content to recycle what they have.”

Wisocki adds a note of caution about generalizing on elder issues: “The senior citizens of today are different from those of even 10 years ago. Everyone reaches old age from a different pathway. Their cultures, geographical locations, family histories, and other aspects of life are all different, so it’s difficult to generalize about the elderly.”

NOTE: Patricia A. Wisocki can be reached at 413/545-1359, or wisocki@psych.umass.edu.