Bipolar disorder affects over 5.5 million adult Americans, equating to approximately 2.5% of the population. The average age of onset is 25 but it can appear in individuals over the age of 50 and may present a series of unique challenges in seniors.
Bipolar Disorder in the Elderly
The idea that age protects you against disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is a complete fallacy. These disorders are more likely to occur in young and middle-aged adults, that much is true, but they present across all age groups. In fact, 10% of all new cases of bipolar disorder occur in adults over the age of 50.
Individuals diagnosed at a younger age will also likely experience symptoms long into their senior years.
Many years ago, it was believed the symptoms lessened with age, but that’s not the case. As with any disorder, if it is not treated, bipolar disorder can worsen with time.
In such cases, it’s difficult for seniors to get adequate care. They are more likely to suffer from mobility issues and to take medications, both of which interfere with bipolar treatments and potentially exacerbate the symptoms.
What are the Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder in Seniors?
Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings, with sufferers moving from periods of depression to periods of mania. These highs and lows also present in elderly sufferers but are a little less common.
Elders are more likely to experience symptoms such as confusion, inability to focus, hyperactivity, and psychosis. As their mind rapidly cycles between two opposing states, they are prone to making serious errors of judgement and to having problems with memory and focus.
How is Elderly Bipolar Disorder Diagnosed?
One of the biggest challenges with bipolar disorder is that these symptoms can mimic other disorders, including Alzheimer’s Disease and even brain cancer. Many of the symptoms may initially be dismissed as side effects of medication, including antidepressants, sleeping tablets, and even narcotic painkillers.
A full check-up is needed to determine the cause. A doctor may ask about family history and personal history, as well as mood changes. A psychiatrist may be required to provide an accurate diagnosis.
How is it Treated?
Lithium is one of the first-course treatments for bipolar disorder and has proven to be effective at regulating mood. Regular checks need to be performed and lithium levels must be monitored carefully. As elderly people metabolize drugs at different rates and are more prone to side effects, it can be harder to find effective treatments.
Getting Help as a Caregiver
Caring for an elderly person with bipolar disorder is very challenging, and for an untrained and inexperienced family member, it can seem like an impossibility. To get you through this difficult time, consider the following:
- Speak with a Doctor: Talk to the patient’s doctor about medications and other treatment options. The more outside help they receive, the easier your job will be.
- Use a Support Group: The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a wealth of resources aimed at people suffering from mental illnesses, as well as their caregivers. You’ll find information on supporting the patient through their ups and downs, as well as guidance on maintaining your own mental health.
- Online Support: Facebook groups and message boards are available to help caregivers, providing them with advice and support. It helps to speak with people who are going through the same things as you.
- Respite Services and Family Members: When things become too much, look to family members for support, asking them to take over for a few hours or days. Respite care services, including adult day care and homecare, will also provide relief when you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
Conclusion: Elderly Bipolar Disorder
It’s not easy being a caregiver, and the frequent mood swings, confusion, and irritability associated with elderly bipolar disorder make this job even more demanding. However, it’s important to remember that as bad as things are for you, they are worse for the care recipient.
They are getting older, losing their mobility, and struggling with the inner turmoil of this often debilitating illness. Don’t get frustrated with them. Instead, remain patient and try to understand what they are going through.