Psychological wellbeing of senior citizens deserves more attention
By Ji Jing  ·  2023-10-30  ·   Source: NO.44 NOVEMBER 2, 2023
A volunteer chats with senior citizens at the Shilipu community in Beijing's Chaoyang District on May 17 (XINHUA)
A 72-year-old woman surnamed Lin in Xiamen, Fujian Province, southeast China, suffered from a sleep disorder in the first half of this year. She had difficulty falling asleep and would wake up early in the morning. As a result, she slept only three to four hours and subsequently felt tired throughout the day.

Before the issue arose, she used to go out every morning to buy vegetables and then talk to neighbors and friends in the park. She also did a lot of housework and gave her home a good scrub every day, without fail. But after the disorder began, she rarely went out and became rather listless. Lin's husband noticed what was happening and took her to Xianyue Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Xiamen, to see a doctor in July.

Su Zhibin, the doctor who treated Lin, told Xiamen Daily newspaper that Lin's cognitive functions had weakened and she had different types of anxiety. He eventually diagnosed her with severe depression.

Su started Lin on a systematic anti-depressant therapy. After only two months, Lin's sleep pattern returned to normal and her social activities increased. When she paid the doctor a follow-up visit in late September, she once again had a smile on her face.

With the rapid aging of Chinese society, the psychological wellbeing of senior citizens has become a prominent problem.

According to the 2018 Senior Citizen Mental Health White Paper released by the China Aging Development Foundation, 63 percent of senior citizens often felt lonely and more than a quarter of the elderly had had suicidal thoughts. These data reflected the seriousness and ubiquity of senior citizens' psychological problems.

As of November 1, 2020, China had 264 million people aged 60 and above, accounting for 18.7 percent of its 1.4 billion population, according to the seventh national population census conducted that year.

Senior residents participate in a dance class at the Xishulu community in Chengdu, Sichuan Province in southwest China, on April 26 (XINHUA)

Changes and challenges 

Seniors face many challenges as their bodies age and their social roles change. They are prone to negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness and hopelessness.

Experts say that if elderly people show symptoms of not wanting to talk or go out, being depressed or having trouble sleeping, family members should pay attention and take them to the hospital for evaluation and, if necessary, treatment.

Pan Weigang, a psychiatrist at Beijing Anding Hospital, affiliated to Capital Medical University, told Beijing Daily newspaper that he sees many senior patients every day who have fallen ill for various reasons. For example, some fell ill because they couldn't adjust to life after retirement.

"Some patients were very busy before they retired; and after retirement, they had nothing to do but watch TV at home. These people are more likely to get depressed," Pan said.

He added that some elderly people have developed psychological problems because they are worried about their physical ailments. He once had an 80-year-old patient who became depressed after being diagnosed with hypertension. Since the senior man had a history of longevity in his family, he could not come to terms with the fact that he would have to be on blood pressure medication for the rest of his life. Such patients need psychological counseling and, if that doesn't work, medication.

Pan noticed that, of the patients he received, most had been persuaded to come to the hospital by their spouses or children, and few came in voluntarily.

The psychiatrist and his colleagues often go to local communities to provide psychological counseling. He said many senior citizens have little knowledge about mental health problems, and even if they do, they are reluctant to see a doctor because of social stigma.

"We need to change their mindset and encourage them to face their problems," Pan said.

Community help 

To help elderly people with mental health problems, the Desheng community in Beijing's Xicheng District set up a mental health service center in 2020. Nearly 20 percent of the community's residents are seniors, and so the center has served mostly elderly people in recent years.

The center has organized group activities during which seniors can communicate with each other.

The center's psychiatrists have found that the psychological problems of the elderly often have a concrete cause. For example, some problems were caused by disputes with children over the distribution of the senior's property. Unlike psychological treatment provided by hospitals, community-based mental health services include not only psychological counseling but also other services, such as legal services, aimed at tackling the root causes that related to the elderly people developing psychological problems to begin with.

At the Shichahai community in Beijing, the mental health service center has recruited residents as volunteers to provide local senior citizens with the care and support to prevent them from developing psychological problems in the first place.

Wang Qi, a 66-year-old resident of the community, is one such volunteer. She is responsible for assisting two senior residents, both in their 80s and both of whom live alone.

She often visits them and helps them clean their homes. Sometimes she brings them food she has cooked herself.

Li Yuanyuan, a psychiatrist with the center, told Beijing Daily that the most important thing is make sure the elderly know they have not been forgotten.

She added that the key to improving seniors' mental health is to increase their social activities so that they can get out of the house and enjoy social interaction.

To prevent seniors from developing mental disorders, Su suggested that after retirement, seniors should look into new hobbies, such as gardening or drawing, and participate in outdoor activities and communicate with other people more often.

It is also recommended that people pay more attention to their elderly parents and spend more time with them during the holidays. For those seniors who have lost their spouse, it is a good idea for their children to live with them so that they do not feel lonely.

Then, there's the role of the government. Currently, China's mental health treatment resources are inadequate and unevenly distributed between urban and rural areas.

According to the National Health Commission, China had 64,000 psychiatrists as of late 2021, accounting for only 1.49 percent of the total number of doctors. And to this day, most psychiatry resources remain concentrated in urban areas.

According to experts, the government should strengthen the construction of primary-level medical institutions to provide more resources for the mental wellbeing of senior citizens. And, for example, increase the number of psychiatrists at the township and village levels. These professionals can play an important role in identifying and treating seniors with mental health issues.

(Print Edition Title: Awareness Never Ages) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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