Older women face a special risk of depression but their complaints are often wrongly dismissed as a normal part of aging, experts say.
"It's natural that you're alone now -- that's the typical response that older people get when they go to get treatment," said Laurie Young, executive director of the Older Women's League of America, who will speak at an upcoming conference in Sacramento.
Young and other mental health experts will talk about how this untreated depression, dementia and other mental health problems devastate older people and their families.
Women may experience depression as they age because they live longer than men, often to end up alone after years of caregiving for their spouse. They also face more economic insecurities.
"The losses and physical frailties, the loss of friends, the loss of eyesight and mobility" all contribute, said Kristin Selby, a licensed clinical social worker with Geriatric Network with the Catholic Healthcare West Medical Foundation. "You can just fall into a pit of despair."
Physical health problems also can be linked to mental health concerns. Women who have suffered hip fractures can grow depressed. Diabetes also can contribute to depression, said Selby. In turn, mental health disorders can delay recovery from physical ailments, said Young.
Heart surgery results in depression so often that some doctors prescribe anti-depressant medications as a precaution, said Selby, who also will speak at the conference. Some medications also cause depression, she added. Mild depression can be one of the first signs of dementia.
Treatment may need to be specialized for their age and health problems, said Young. Older bodies react differently to psychotropic medications, so dosages may differ, she said.
Mental health treatment also has a higher co-pay than physical illnesses under the Medicare program, a disparity that the Older Women's League -- which describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan national organization that educates and advocates for women age 40 and older -- is tackling on a national level.
The co-pay for mental health care is 50 percent, compared to a usual 20 percent co-pay rate. For seniors struggling to pay for prescription drugs, the costs can be too high, said Young.
Experts at the conference will advise older people to seek treatment if needed, stay engaged with community activities and remain as physically active as health allows.
Betty Perry, public policy director for the Older Women's League of California, said the conference is a first step toward making people aware of the problem.
For women who have grown up with the expectation that they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, it can be hard to ask for help.
"They need to not feel shame or stigma about acknowledging that they may have a problem," said Young.
The two-day conference on older women's mental health will be held Friday and Saturday at the Hilton Sacramento, 2200 Harvard St. The cost of the entire program is $65, including meals. Saturday morning's educational sessions are available for a $10 fee. To register, call (916) 444-2526.
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