Early Warning Signs of Mental Illness in the Elderly

Authored by Frank Moraes    Image:  https://www.istockphoto.com/

Mental illnesses can affect anyone at any age, including elderly individuals. In fact, one in four elderly adults is estimated to be affected by a mental illness, and people age 85 and older experience the highest rate of suicide compared to any other age group in the U.S. With such staggering statistics, it’s important that family, friends, and caregivers of elderly individuals know what the signs of mental illness are, especially in older adults, and how to help.

Sign 1: Social Withdrawal

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in older adults, and a top sign of depression in the elderly is social withdrawal. Social withdrawal or social isolation is categorized as a person avoiding social interactions, and it often comes with the person feeling uninterested in talking to or being around other people.

While social withdrawal can be a sign of depression, it can also be a sign of hearing loss, especially in older adults. This is because those who experience trouble with their hearing may avoid social conversations as they may fear being unable to listen to another person. That being said, it’s a good idea to talk to someone you think is socially withdrawn and figure out the root cause of their withdrawal.

Sign 2: Confusion or Memory Lapses

Another mental illness most commonly seen in elderly people is dementia, and a top sign of this illness is confusion or lapses in memory. Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia, may also be traced back to these early warning signs.

Confusion is difficult to define, but it usually occurs when an individual struggles to understand something that they previously could understand. For example, if a family member asks an elderly person what they would like to drink and the person cannot understand what is being asked of them, then the person may be experiencing an early sign of dementia, or a related mental illness. Memory lapses too are common early warning signs of mental illnesses in older adults, and should be taken seriously if they occur frequently.

Sign 3: Mood Changes

Perhaps the most commonly overlooked sign of mental illness in the elderly is a sudden change in mood. Older adults who seem to switch from relaxed and happy to stressed and irritated quickly may be having mood swings stemming from an undiagnosed mental illness, such as bipolar disorder. With some illnesses, such as depression, a person’s overall mood may remain abnormally sad for days or weeks at a time.

Since mood changes may indicate a number of different mental illnesses, it’s best to consult with a doctor to help determine which illness an elderly person may be experiencing. From there, you can receive treatment and help based on a diagnosed mental illness.

Sign 4: Changes in Routine

Older adults who show a loss of interest in daily activities, particularly activities they once enjoyed, may be suffering from a mental illness, such as depression. Often, those with depression experience loss of energy, making it difficult to engage in any activity for a long period of time, including regular tasks like eating and bathing. Someone who skips part of his or her daily routine may also struggle with dementia, which affects a person’s ability to cognitively think and perform.

Sign 5: Appetite or Weight Changes

While changes in appetite or weight may lead to any number of illnesses, they can also point to mental illnesses. A person who shows a rapid decline in weight or sudden disinterest in eating could be struggling with anything from an anxiety disorder to any stage of Alzheimer’s.

If you notice that an older adult is showing changes in weight or appetite, consider looking for other signs of a mental illness along with it. If the adult is also showing changes in routine, mood, memory, and/or exhibiting social withdrawal, consult a doctor to help diagnose a possible mental illness and receive treatment for the adult to avoid further weight loss.


It is important to accept that mental illnesses can affect your near and dear ones, and watch out for warning signs such as social withdrawal or memory lapses. Leaving symptoms untreated or ignoring them can lead to serious consequences, as portrayed in the 2007 movie Savage Grace (streaming on DIRECTV STREAM). When symptoms are noticed and brought to the attention of a doctor quickly, an elderly person’s mental illness can be slowed or kept under control in order to enable them to lead a near-normal life.

Author Bio: Frank Moraes is a freelance writer specializing in technology, business, and film/television. He combines them all as an editor at the cord-cutter website HotDog.com

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