Baby boomers have been a topic of national interest, well, since the original boom. But, it’s been over the past 10 years or so, as this generation ages, that the country’s really been paying attention.
The aging of this large generation has coincided with major changes in the U.S. economy. Baby boomers, facing retirement, have been confronted with fewer and very different options than previous generations. The very meaning of aging in America has shifted and this generation has been a part of redefining it.
For those of us interested in health, the aging of the baby boom generation has meaning, too. As older generations have lived longer and longer, medical professionals who specialize in working with older adult patients have had to step up their game.
But, is the medical field prepared for what’s coming?
According to a report recently released by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the U.S. doesn’t have enough medical professionals specifically trained to meet the needs of the growing older adult population.
What does the IOM see as some of these special needs?
The intersection of physical and mental health: Sometimes treatment for a physical illness can contribute to a situation that manifests as a mental health problem, such as is the case with the effects of some medications. In addition, underlying mental health issues may contribute to older adults not being compliant with medication regimens for physical health issues. Medical professionals will need to balance physical and mental health needs and take both mind and body into consideration when determining treatment.
Distinguishing between grief and depression: As this debate is taking place in the larger mental health community, it’s particularly relevant for older adults, who lose can lose their support system over time. Being able to correctly diagnose depression in the midst of ongoing losses may be a challenge.
A different experience of substance use: Health professionals will need to pay attention to substance abuse as an issue for this population. According to a summary of the report, “Age alters the way people’s bodies metabolize alcohol and medications, increasing the general risk for overdoses; these changes can worse or cause alcoholism and addiction.”
What can be done?
The priority is to beef up our mental health and medical workforce, preparing more professionals to understand these complex needs through specializing in working with older adult and geriatric patients.
But, in the meantime, we can do something that those who work in suicide prevention recommend doing with other populations, too — preparing everyone who interacts with the population to recognize signs of a problem and provide a basic level of mental health care.
What’s compelling about this report?
I’m glad to see such the high—profile and respected Institute of Medicine taking on older adult mental health. It’s also good to see substance abuse called out as an important component of mental health. Finally, the IOM shows how interconnected physical health, mental health, and overall well-being are for people, of all ages.
Read a summary of the report here.
Copyright 2012 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved