The medical model in psychiatry assumes medical intervention is the treatment of choice for the constellations of diagnosed symptoms that comprise various mental disorders. These treatments may include pharmacotherapy, electroconvulsive treatment, brain stimulation, and psychosurgery. Therefore, psychopharmacology for older adults can be considered palliative rather than a cure for a brain disease causing psychopathology. Older adults experience many psychopathological problems, including anorexia tardive, anxiety disorders, delusional disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, schizophrenia, and co-occurring disorders with substance abuse/dependence disorders. Therefore, it is critical for the social worker to understand the various manifestations of psychological problems in older adults from the perspective of an older adult, rather than extrapolating information commonly taught in social work programs that neglect to focus on older adults and restrict teaching to psycho-pathological problems in younger and middle-aged adults.
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For older adults, the phenomenon of death is accepted and does not induce the fear experienced by younger adults. Older adults who do not engage in end-of-life planning may receive unwanted, unnecessary, costly, and painful medical interventions or withdrawal of desired treatment. Many older people feel that the goal of palliative care is to make the best possible dying experience for the older adult and his/her family. In addition to palliative care, an older adult will most likely find himself or herself in an intensive care unit as part of his or her terminal care. Euthanasia, or hastened death, is seen by some as an alternative to palliative care. A psychological aspect of death that an older adult is concerned with, in addition to place of death, is whether he or she will die in his or her sleep or die suddenly, making the death experience an individual phenomenon.
Housing communities for older adults are not a contemporary concept. The guiding concept of creating older communities is the desire to give older adults an alternative concept of housing that will allow them to sustain themselves economically, while giving choice and an element of control over their health care, social networks, and physical environment. Many older adults choose retirement communities for an added sense of personal security and continued independent living as a beginning preparation for their ultimate mortality. Aging in place encompasses an older adult staying in his or her home throughout the aging cycle or moving to housing that provides limited services such as an option for communal dining, cleaning services, and transportation. Like aging-in-place strategies, continuing care and assisted living facilities provide medical and nonmedical living services to older adults who are unable to live independently because of medical illness, cognitive decline, or disability.
The therapeutic alliance works based on the idea that the social worker is a willing participant whose primary concern is to support an older client’s effort for desired change. When considering theoretical orientations to treating an older adult that are consistent with the short-term constraints found in most mental health agencies, one is faced with a multitude of theories, some extended for older adults, most created for younger adults. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and various interpersonal psychotherapies are effective for older adults, though an older adult’s response to these therapies may have a different temporal course and require modifications in technique. Constructivist theory is a conceptual framework that is foundational to existential therapy, CBT, and narrative therapy. However, for older adults, reminiscence is a strength-based strategy employed to validate a sense of intimacy with the past, to integrate the many transitions of life, and as a preparatory method for death.
The process of assessing an older adult occurs on two levels. The first level takes place when an older client presents for assessment. The second level of the assessment process is used for gathering facts that are analyzed for diagnosis, treatment planning, and disposition. Most social workers treating older adults will be younger than their clients. Therefore, clinical authority and respect may become an issue. It is common to treat older adults experiencing hearing deficits who have trouble perceiving high frequencies. The social worker must evaluate the status of the client’s housing, transportation, food, clothing, recreation opportunities, social supports, access to medical care, kinship, contact with neighbors, and other environmental resources that the client or social worker considers important. During the collection of this data, the opportunity will arise while discussing social relationships to collect historical information on the client’s psychosocial development.
Medical problems challenge older adults’ abilities to cope with illness, and at times they experience co-occurring psychological disorders. Therefore, social workers must provide services to assist older adults who are experiencing acute or chronic medical conditions. Older adults experiencing arthritic pain often experience a co-occurring depression. The major cancers experienced by older adults are breast cancer; chronic lymphocytic leukemia; lymphocytic lymphoma; colorectal cancer; lung cancer; mouth, head, and neck cancers; multiple myeloma; prostate cancer; skin cancers; and vulvae cancer. Those older adults suffering from diabetes have a greater chance of co-occurring vascular and cardiovascular conditions and a greater rate of institutionalization and subsequent mortality. Coordination with family members and caregivers about self-care issues, medicine compliance, safety issues, health socialization, and exercise is important because social workers often overlook psychoeducation with medically ill clients.
Stigma is the foundation that distorts the many social constructs affecting how social workers view older adults. Many socially constructed optics produced by stigma can bias social workers’ views of older people. It is important for a social worker to understand that race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are social constructs that bias clinical care. Additionally, stigma associated with race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation produce psychosocial stressors that converge on older clients, which exacerbate their physical and psychological health statuses. The stigma of mental illness serves to increase the suffering of older people struggling with psychological problems while increasing the suffering of family members, loved ones, and caregivers who experience courtesy stigma. The stigma of suffering from mental illness may also prevent an older person from seeking treatment for his or her psychological problems. Older adults suffering from dementia also suffer from the negative reactions to them because of their diagnosis.
Clinical gerontological social work practice with older adults is a rapidly growing field encompassing many practice venues. The social work mission with older adults encompasses micro practice, mezzo practice, and overriding macro policies affecting an older adult. Because of the increasing population of older adults, gerontological social work education must be expanded to meet the needs of this population. Collingwood, Emond, and Woodward (2008) propose a theoretical orientation that is adaptable to a social worker assisting older adults. The case of Georgina is an example of how a social worker must understand and implement knowledge of developmental stage theory, environmental influences, and resilience theory when working with an older adult in crisis. A social worker working with older adults must employ advocacy skills and provide concrete services, as well as psychotherapeutic interventions.
Older adult abuse is a multifactorial problem that includes problematic relationships among the older adult and spouse/partner, cohabitating with adult children, and caregivers left unsupervised with an older adult. Researchers focusing on the etiology of abuse of older adults need to place a greater emphasis on the characteristics of the abuser as a predicting variable rather than the characteristics and stereotypes of the victim as the responsible predictor of the abuse. The perpetrators of abuse against older adults, in most cases, are those who have an interpersonal relationship with the older adult. Nurses are in an ideal position to be vigilant about the status of older adults under their care, evaluating risk factors for abuse on assessment of the older adult, as well as looking for signs of abuse during their care. Older adults are usually viewed as victims of crime, rather than perpetrators of crime.
The importance of the field of geropsychology (psychology of aging) is seen in the ever-increasing demographics of older adults. A psychologist needs to understand the various life stages that define different cohorts of older adults. Older adults are affected by the forces of stigma and ageism, which are of four types: personal, institutional, intentional, and unintentional. A majority of older adults experience age discrimination and stigmatization after the age of 65. The use of medical model of psychopathology causes contradictions and distortions, one of which is the use of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Assessment of deficits in olfactory functioning are potentially useful for a psychologist who is attempting to differentiate between cognitive disturbances of normal aging and mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Sexual interest remains high throughout old adult developmental stages, but sexual activity declines in most men as they age. While older adults are more likely to avoid illicit substances, many older adults having chronic pain from cancer or arthritis need opioid medications. Older adult abuse is a multifactorial phenomenon as the abuse may be emotional, financial, physical, sexual, or self-induced. Environmental geropsychology is based on Lewin’s field theory model Lawton and Nahemow’s ecological model, and an environmental geropsychologist focuses on the environmental component to develop interventions to change older adults’ interpersonal and intrapersonal experiences. Heightened awareness of coming of death results in an existential crisis for many older adults causing a loss of their sense of purpose for their lives.