Why isn’t there any discussion on the mental health of the aged?

(Published in Khaleej Times dated 15 March, 2022)


For better or for worse, the word depression has been in vogue for a while now. Something that had been a condition talked in hushed tones is now slowly emerging from the shadows, and it is a healthy trend.

We are becoming more cognizant of what drives us up and what drags us down. We are not afraid of speaking about our deepest fears and quaintest thoughts. We are seeking help when required and not hunkering down. We have regularized mental health as a subject of importance and our dialogues around it have got constructive. The toll that life conditions are taking on us as we manoeuver through the complexities of adolescent and adult lives is being duly evaluated and we are making efforts to fix it in appropriate ways.

Yet, for all the strides we have made in this regard, one thing still remains ignored. One segment of people are hugely left out in our mental health conversations: our old folks. How often do we engage in discussions about an old person’s emotional and psychological state as they grapple with their waning capabilities and losses? Do we even consider geriatric depression (if I may label it so) as a genuine issue that requires tackling?

As decades fall by and the muscle power crumbles, as the pace of life slows down and one gets dislodged from the centre stage of the world, there will be unspecified changes happening inside us. The gradual winding down of faculties would have repercussions in the mental realm too. Add to it a slow attrition of social engagement, support systems and diversions, old people are more susceptible to volatile mental conditions than younger ones. Yet, no one talks about it. It is as if growing old, getting wobbly, infirm and disoriented is par for the course.

Not all people are equally designed to handle the deterioration that comes in the fading years. I know a number of energetic people with relentless enthusiasm for life, and many others who stoically accept the downsides of old age, but a great majority of people are not wired that way. A dull, unspoken sense of sadness is a constant in many people, which manifests as illnesses of different kinds. And because ailments are commonplace, the angst that accompanies them is often glossed over by all. It is as if some things are inescapable in life, and mood disorders which includes irritability, prolonged silence or fretful behaviour are therefore normalised in this stage of life. It is never linked to the fluctuating inner space of the individual who spends his days trying to find a purpose during the wrap-up years, battling physical maladies and burying emotional upheavals.

If many of our adult-life concerns are linked to worldly pursuits, if our mental disorders are consequent on our ambitions and aspirations, geriatric depression happens because of a complete lack of motivation to live. The sad part is that it is not even recognized and acknowledged by those surrounding the afflicted. For once, let us agree that depression is real even for those we think are past all serious businesses in life and start discussions about ways to provide our old people a happier mind space.

No, just because one is old, it is not OK for them to endure insecurities silently as if that is how senility is supposed to be. There must be some psychosocial mechanism that gauges old age mental health and offers counselling and treatment to those affected.

Quality of life is not the privilege of the younger lot alone. Those who have laid down their arms after a lifetime’s battles deserve to spend their autumn years free from fear of isolation, rejection, mortality and other hardships that escort old age. We must discard our practiced attitude of ascribing their troubles to the intransigence of time. We must create an awareness about how preparing for old age includes building sustainable support systems around us that will recognize loneliness, illnesses and anxiety as veritable conditions that need to be addressed.

For this, we must first concede that each of us deserves to live happily till our last breath irrespective of age and living conditions. The reasons for psychological turmoil in a 15-, 50- and 80-year-old may be different, but the impact they have on their mind and subsequently on their life is equally bitter.

Depression, like death, is a huge leveller. Turbulence is endemic in human mind, and to think that it unsettles only the younger brigade, to think that the old can be easily left to wallow in their sadness and fear would be preposterous, for some day, we too will be in their shoes wondering why the world has become so grey and blue.

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