Charlie Ross, 64, has been living with bipolar disorder for decades. That's made it easier to be an older person with a mental illness. But, he acknowledges, not everyone is so lucky.
Ross, a former computer programmer who lives in Lawrence, was diagnosed as bipolar in 1983. He's since had a psychotic episode after a bad reaction to a medication and been told he has attention deficit disorder. He has gone through years of medication and therapy to get to where he is today: at peace with himself and his condition.
"The thing about aging with a mental illness is a lot of people learn to live with it," said Ross, who bears a resemblance to "Breaking Bad" actor Bryan Cranston, but without the glasses. "By the time you get older, you have learned to make your life work."
Ross has also for years been an advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, supporting others with mental health issues and trying to make improvements in the way care is delivered (though he admits he has a long way to go on that front). He appears to be ready for the challenges that come with aging.
Many senior citizens, however, have their first experience with mental illness at a later age. Conditions like depression and anxiety can be brought on or exacerbated by situations that often accompany aging: the loss of a spouse, failing health, a move into a nursing home or assisted-living facility.
And certain barriers can prevent seniors from getting the care they need: lack of transportation, living on a fixed income, social stigma. That's especially true for people who grew up during a time when mental health issues were looked at much differently than they are today.
"A lot of older people, in their generation, it was not talked about if someone had a mental illness," said Judith Sweets, president of NAMI Douglas County.
Ruth Shadel, a therapist and aging specialist at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in Lawrence, said seniors suffering from mental illness should seek treatment as soon as possible because, since they often live alone, they can easily go into a downward spiral without anyone noticing.
"They isolate themselves. They get depressed, sometimes they get suicidal. The quality of their lives deteriorate. They don't eat or sleep well," she said.
People with mental illnesses, caregivers and family members are encouraged to attend a monthly support group hosted by the Douglas County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The group is free of charge and meets the third Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. at the Lawrence Senior Center, 745 Vermont St.
NAMI Douglas County is also teaching a 12-week course for family members of people with mental illnesses starting March 2. The free Family-to-Family course will be from 3 to 5 p.m. in conference room A at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, 325 Maine St. For more information or to register, email Robin Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org, contact Audrey Jacobs at the NAMI-Kansas office at 800-539-2660, or visit www.namikansas.org.
If, for example, a man loses his wife of 50 years, it's normal to be sad, Shadel acknowledges. Depression can also be brought on by certain health conditions, like urinary tract infection. So seniors (or anyone for that matter) should ask themselves one question: "How much is your depression or anxiety interfering with your daily functioning?" Shadel said. Friends can help, too, by checking in on a person who hasn't been showing up for social gatherings.
Shadel said depression isn't a natural part of getting older, as some might assume.
"You can age successfully and you can be happy and you don't have to tolerate depression and anxiety," she said. "There's treatment for that." That treatment is the same no matter your age: therapy and, in many cases, medication.
One of Shadel's patients, a 78-year-old retired Kansas University employee who lives in Lawrence and asked not to be named in this story, knows what it's like to be diagnosed with mental illness as a senior citizen. He had been retired for a few years when a tragic event in his personal life sent him into a state of depression he couldn't get out of.
"I was making myself miserable, and I was really making my wife's life miserable," he said. "I was having fits of rage, shouting, screaming, yelling. I was beside myself with anguish and pain and suffering because I knew I couldn't solve this problem. I needed help."
He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, put on medication and, eventually, referred to Shadel. Her therapy helped him greatly; they even discovered issues from his childhood that may have been making things worse.
He noted that when he was growing up, people rarely discussed mental illness — "It was almost like having leprosy" — or sought treatment, especially men.
"You always think, 'Well, hey, I'm a man. I'm supposed to man up,'" he said. "In other words, if I go in there and ask for help, I'm less of a person. I'm less of a man."
Almost a decade after his mental health crisis, he still takes medication, sees Shadel once a month and says he's in a good place, mentally. He just hopes seniors in a similar situation as him get the treatment they need.
"If you're creating a problem for you, yourself or your family, you owe it to them to seek help, to do something about it," he said. "Otherwise, you probably are not going to get better. It's probably going to get worse."