The Health Care Industry Must Act to Improve Older Adults’ Mental Health

Updated on August 24, 2023
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Increasing mental health access and education will be critical to meet this demographic’s unique well-being needs.

The aging population in the United States is rapidly growing. The number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected to nearly double by 2060 — and, with it, so is the need for mental health care and resources among this important age group. 

Throughout my more than 20 years in the health care industry, I’ve seen mental health become a more significant part of the well-being conversation. However, there is still a clear need for collaboration across the health care industry on the topic. We must educate individuals about their total well-being and encourage health care providers to discuss mental health during regular checkups to normalize it and remove any stigma. Doing this is crucial to making mental health care accessible to all, particularly across vulnerable populations like older adults. 

Looking at the Past

Older adults are more likely to experience factors such as losing loved ones, developing chronic conditions and complex health care needs. They also face certain barriers to care, such as low health literacy and food insecurity, which can — and often do — have a negative impact on their mental well-being. What’s more, older adults grew up in a time when society didn’t want to think about or acknowledge mental health — a time when many individuals didn’t know better. As a result, many older adults are less likely to report mental health concerns today, even though data shows at least one in four older adults experiences some mental disorder, such as depression, anxiety or dementia. 

When these experiences are combined with ones more commonly faced in the later years, from retirement to loneliness, older adults’ mental well-being may be negatively impacted. And the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this issue.

Charting a Path Forward

Recent CVS Health data found that 95% of respondents ages 57 and older agreed that mental health should be taken more seriously by society, and that this age group has the highest concern for societal mental health. This newfound openness to acknowledging and addressing mental health among older adults is a positive sign. 

As health care leaders, we can — and should — play a role in how we continue to normalize these conversations and leverage older adults’ sentiments around well-being to bring them the care they need and deserve. 

There are a number of steps we can take to meet the mental health needs of older adults.

  • Addressing barriers to care  

The industry cannot treat mental health needs without expanding older adults’ understanding of the services available to them. While this age group has a widespread understanding of the importance of mental health, they are less likely than younger individuals to seek mental health services. Just 43% of people who are 65 or older have tried to access mental health care, as opposed to 75% of people under 65. Giving older adults the knowledge about and access to mental health services will lead to better management and prevention of mental health conditions.

I have heard of many individuals – both Aetna members and beyond – who want or need mental health care but simply don’t know where to start. It’s on us to continue fostering and normalizing conversations around the topic and break down barriers to care.

  • Improving access to high-quality mental health services

The health care industry at large must also increase access to high-quality, personalized care that meets consumers when and where they want these services. Expanded awareness of mental health care options will not be enough if the delivery of these services does not meet consumers’ needs. At CVS Health, we tailor resources to meet consumers wherever and however they need these services — in their community, their home, or the palm of their hand. The industry as a whole must do the same. 

We must pursue a multi-channel model to deliver older adults the patient-centric, personalized support they need and deserve.

Optimism for the future of older adults’ mental health

While there is much work to be done to address older adults’ mental health needs, there are already signs of optimism. Primary care providers are improving how they identify and address mental health concerns and connecting patients with essential mental care services. The expanding imagination for where and when these services can be delivered, too, is a positive trend. 

I’m encouraged by the fact that we are openly having this conversation more and more. As industry leaders, though, we must recognize that the work does not stop with these conversations: We must follow them with action. We must do and be better. Ultimately, it’s on us to ensure that older adults have the education and tools they need to care for their overall well-being and live their best life.

Terri Swanson
Terri Swanson

Terri Swanson is President of Aetna Medicare.