by Rabbi Richard Address~The expansion of the 2008 Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act, which expanded mental health coverage for Medicare recipients went into effect on January 1, 2014. The Affordable Care Act adds to this 2008 law by making mental health and substance abuse among the essential benefits that must be included in any plan that is purchased. This is important in our age of longevity for extended life spans have also created increasing concerns around issues of mental health.
No doubt many of us have been involved with our parents who deal often with issues of depression or anxiety, often brought about by loneliness and a gradual loss of meaning. One of the most challenging aspects of the revolution in longevity is the challenge to keep one’s mind and body active and alert and to rise each day with a sense of meaning.
Many of us know people who seemed to have lost that passion for living. Their body language and affect is withdrawn. It may be that the actualization of these laws can provide the type of treatment options that can restore a sense of life and purpose. We see this type of depression especially around life transitions such as the death of a close friend or the reality of a loss of some mobility or perhaps, in having to relocate into an assisted living facility. These major transitions often bring about a sense of loss and a type of depression that needs to be treated, so as not to become more pronounced.
Sadly, one of the challenges related to this issue is that there may not be enough trained therapists to handle the expected rise in requests. A recent New York Times article pointed out that while there are many therapists available to people, there is a shortage in therapists trained to deal with the mental health issues of older adults. (“Medicare and Mental Health Care”: New York Times. January 7, 2014. D-5)
The need for meaning is also being seen in the Boomers as we begin our own transition from full time work to “something”. Given the blessing of health, we may expect several decades of life ahead of us. Inherent in that blessing, then, is the question of “what do we do with this gift of time?” The challenges of filling that time and the gnawing reality of our own aging can sometimes combine to lead to a feeling of depression and being cut off from life.
This raises the potential for a mental health crises that may overwhelm our system. As Baby Boomers age, and join many of their parents’ generation and if there are fewer trained therapists to treat them, we may be dealing with real societal challenges. A May 2013 report by the Center for Disease Control cited an alarming rise in suicide rates among baby boomers due to increased stresses in life; everything from economic challenges to having to face caring for aging parents. These increasing stresses and strains of daily living have the potential to stretch the mental health care system to its maximum.
How we choose to deal with these wide varieties of stressors varies from person to person. The issues that face each of us as we age often present serious concerns. It can be easy to feel depressed and alone as we witness the changes that take place within our bodies and community. This is why study after study has reinforced the idea that staying active in mind and body and spirit, is a major contributor to mental as well as physical health. A quick scan of web sites and books that look at the issues of aging and mental health will show you the conclusion that staying involved with people and staying active within a community is a necessary ingredient to keeping one’s sense of meaning. I think that one of the reasons Boomers are flocking to volunteer in social causes or returning to life-long learning classes is the fact that these experiences keep one’s sense of questioning and purpose alive. The mental health aspect of this cannot be understated. We do need to be needed and we do need to need. Without this, we become isolated and depressed.
Another aspect that may contribute to the sense of isolation is that so many older adults live in “facilities”. It is my experience that the people who move into these facilities who were socially active and involved before their move, continue this style of life. Yet, for people who were more isolate in their life style, the move can trigger some severe mental health issues. This issues will grow as boomers age and may be forced to, or voluntarily choose, this type of living arrangements.
The mental health aspect of our own aging is a subject that needs to be discussed. The social stigma surrounding mental health issues still exists in many areas. The fact of longevity and the now aging baby boom generation will test our souls and medical care system to do whatever we can to be supportive to individuals who need to access the system in order to provide a life of meaning.