Behavioral Health Attention For Seniors

Just like children have different health needs than adults, seniors also have concerns that differ from those in early adulthood and in middle age. According to the National Council on Aging, 80% of older adults have at least one chronic health condition and nearly 70% of Medicare beneficiaries have two or more. Heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, depression, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases can significantly reduce an individual’s independence, ability to perform day-to-day tasks and overall wellness.

While a senior may see a provider regularly to care for their physical health needs, they may be less likely to consult a physician or medical professional for their behavioral health needs. Older adults may experience many different behavioral health issues such as depression, dementia or Alzheimer’s to name a few.

senior behavioral health
Older adults may experience many different behavioral health issues such as depression, dementia or Alzheimer’s.


Older adults are at an increased risk for depression, and they are often misdiagnosed and undertreated. Seniors may experience anxiety, depression or other behavioral conditions that are unique to their life experiences, such as the loss of independence, death of a spouse or moving out of their home. Physical health issues, such as diabetes or chronic heart disease, also may trigger depression.

Depression does not always look the same in older adults as it does in younger adults, and family medicine physicians work with psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers and counselors to assess, diagnose and treat emotional and behavioral difficulties experienced by aging adults.

“Depression is a common issue among older adults but clinical depression is not part of aging,” explained Kevin R. Patterson, MD, System Wide Medical Director for Behavioral Health for Penn Highlands Healthcare. “For most people, depression improves with treatment such as counseling and medication.”

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a decline in mental ability that’s severe enough to disrupt daily life. While depression can be associated with dementia, there are many other symptoms which are related to memory, thinking and social abilities. Common symptoms include:

  • Memory loss, which is usually noticed by someone else.
  • Difficulty communicating or finding words.
  • Difficulty with visual and spatial abilities, such as getting lost while driving.
  • Difficulty reasoning or problem-solving.
  • Difficulty handling complex tasks.
  • Difficulty with planning and organizing.
  • Difficulty with coordination and motor functions.
  • Confusion and disorientation.
  • Personality changes.
  • Depression.
  • Inappropriate behavior.

The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which affects the parts of the brain that control thoughts, memory and language. It usually begins with slight memory loss and progresses to the inability to respond to the environment or carry on a conversation.

“Typically symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease first appear after age 60 and the risk increases with age,” explained Dr. Patterson. “While medical management can improve the quality of life for people living with Alzheimer’s, there is no known cure.”

Some of the symptoms associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s may be related to a more treatable condition such as a reaction to a new medication or a vitamin deficiency. Early and accurate diagnosis helps families plan care needs.

Penn Highlands Healthcare provides geriatric behavioral health services at locations throughout the region. The health system’s senior care services also include assisted living, adult day care, long-term care and senior housing. Learn more at