Exploring the Mental Health Impact of Aging Women
By: Bianca Gonzalez
Through the expansion medical care and technological advances, the lifespan of older adult women has progressively increased. According to the National Vital Statistics Reports of the U.S., in the year 2017, the national average of female life expectancy is the age of 81. Compared to the 1920s, female life expectancy was the age of 54. Older adult women are living longer and are experiencing the world through many significant changes throughout the lifespan. They experience milestones of struggles, hardships, love, and laughter throughout their lifetime that is monumental to their well-being.
Mental health in older adult women often is masked underneath their physical health, including hormonal changes, the development of chronic illnesses and/or the onset of cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s or other dementias. When it comes to addressing mental health, older adults’ mental health is overlooked more than any other age group. We often forget that transitioning to older adulthood is also a continuous journey that many find strenuous. This developmental stage includes many life transitions, increased grief and mourning, amplified self-reflection and review of accomplishments, and the hope this phase of life offers. The life stressors that women experience contributes to the likelihood of developing depression or anxiety with age. The most common mental health conditions that are seen in older adult women are anxiety and depression. The estimation rates of depression are 10 to 30% among person’s living in older adult assistant living and highest among older adult women with low income and those who lack social support.
Older women widowed, separated, or divorced may not remarry and prefer to live independently. They may have the support of their family but living independently can become lonely if they are isolated and unable to connect with their peers. Older women who no longer have the role of a wife or mother can develop symptoms of mental health disorders. We must consider the life transitions of older women and their environmental factors that can contribute to their mental health. Older women confront loneliness and social isolation as children move away and begin their adult lives, this is an especially life-altering event for women who may have been full-time care takers and no longer have the responsibility of raising children. If an older woman lives with their fully healthy spouse or partner, then loneliness may not be as detrimental but other physical and social factors can contribute to developing mental illness.
Older caregiver women, who care for their unhealthy partner are particularly more vulnerable to developing a mental health disorder. Caregivers who take care of their partners can be impact their well-being. They may go through bereavement of having a chronically ill partner then live through adjustment to widowhood. The transition from caregiver to widowhood may have a multitude of impacts on the caregiver’s life. They may experience a sense of relief that their partner is no longer suffering. The adverse effect could be financial insecurity from the medical expenses in addition to mourning the loss of a loved one. Coping with the financial stress, loss of a loved one, and physical health can be significant to the psychological well-being of older caregiving women.
Carefully considering the life transitions that many older adults encounter is vital to their psychological well-being. The life transitions for women from middle age into older adulthood vary depending on their life experiences and their social support system. Growing older is accompanied by experiencing more losses because of chronic illnesses, aging onset medical conditions, or unexpected life events. Aging women may develop medical conditions that can decline their capability to perform physical activities or engage in fully with their social network. The changing abilities may increase depressive symptoms. We must consider the life transitions older women and their environmental factors and how these contribute to their mental health.
Social workers are uniquely poised to approach aging women with a strengths perspective to highlight the innate strength and resiliency aging women possess. While helping aging women cope with the many life transitions and possible losses associated with growing older and living longer. Social workers serve as an agent for older adult women to adequately provide them with social services to help them with their socio-emotional needs. The social worker is a bridge builder to connect older adult women with social groups within their community. If the client is in a day center or an adult living facility, then the social worker can connect them to the social groups for active engagement in preferred activities. If the older adult woman lives independently may struggle to faithfully attend their congregation or other leisure activities, then the social worker can help provide resources for transportation or other barriers that may exist to their attendance. Social workers are advocates for social change to increase the well-being of older adults.
Growing older represents a beautiful journey and the opportunity to dispense profound wisdom from their lived experiences. Older adults are retiring later in life and are living longer. Let us not only focus the loss associated with aging such as cognitive decline or chronic and acute medical conditions, but transform our narrative to highlight the strengths aging women possess and to explore the social and environmental factors that increase wellbeing and quality of life. Gerontology social work is a growing field of practice and area of empirical research. Social workers should continue striving to understand the lived experience and unique life transitions of aging women to understand how to better provide appropriate and relevant mental health services.