Common Mental Health Problems

The most common mental health issues for seniors are the “BIG A” (Anxiety disorders) and the “3 D’s” (Depression, Delirium and Dementia).


Anxiety disorders affect up to 20% of the population, and come in many different forms:

Some warning signs:

  • Feeling jittery, keyed up or on edge
  • Changes in sleep patterns like having trouble sleeping
  • Difficulty keeping your mind focused
  • Physical tension
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Repetitive thoughts or worries that are hard to control

These symptoms can affect any individual for a short period of time. It is only when they are prolonged, severe and disruptive to your life that they may be signs of an anxiety disorder. 
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While depression is not a normal part of aging, it is a common illness. About 15-20% of older persons, living independently in the community, experience depression. However, only one in three people with serious depression actually seeks treatment.

Some warning sign of depression:

  • Feeling anxious, blue or tearful
  • Losing interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Avoiding social situations or going out
  • Being mentally confused or indecisive
  • Experiencing changes in appetite, energy or sleep
  • Having negative thoughts about yourself, your life or your future
  • Having unexplained physical problems or pains

In more serious cases, people might also begin to question the point of living, or even have suicidal ideas or plans. In this instance, medical attention should be sought immediately. 

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Delirium is a momentary state of mental confusion that can be hard to recognize and diagnose, and can have serious outcomes if not treated. High risk groups are seniors, those in institutions and in hospitals, especially following surgery. Delirium can be triggered by many things, but common triggers are infections, dehydration, or medications. It is important to note that delirium is not dementia (see description below of dementia.) 

Some warning signs of delirium are

  • Mental confusion that comes on fairly quickly, over days or weeks.
  • Trouble focusing or paying attention.
  • Disorientation to place or time.
  • Excessive sleepiness or excessive agitation.
  • Delirium should be treated as quickly as possible. For more information, please visit This is Not My Mom or the CCMSH Booklet on delirium.


Unlike delirium, in dementia there are slow memory and functional changes over years, with short term memory loss, disorganization, decision-making problems, and language or personality changes often being symptoms. 

Some warning signs of dementia:

  • Changes in personality
  • Difficulty with decision-making
  • Notable issues with short-term memory – e.g. recalling who visited yesterday.
  • Changes in ability to handle money, medications, shopping, or driving

Early detection is important, because while dementia is not reversible, there are interventions and treatments that can help. And for all of us, there are many things we can do to help prevent dementia – see the other sections on Optimal Aging to learn more. Please visit the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia or Life and Minds websites for more information on dementia and support services for those with dementia and their caregivers. This information is supported by research and scientific evidence. Please see our Evidence Base for more information.