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Preparing for a groundswell of elderly people with mental illness

HONOLULU -- With the first of the baby boomers turning 65 this year, the nation should brace itself for a growing number of older people with dementia and other types of mental illnesses, psychiatrists reported Monday at the annual meeting of
the American Psychiatric Assn.

It’s not that mental illness is becoming more common in older people. The problem is that 20% of the U.S. population will be 65 and older by 2030 -- an increase from about 12% now. Life expectancy is also increasing, so people are living more years with dementia and other types of mental illnesses that can cause aggressive behaviors, delusions, wandering from homes or care facilities and other problematic behavior.

In a study at Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, researchers found a significant increase in the number of elderly patients with mental illness coming to the emergency room in recent years, including a 30% jump from 2008 to 2009. Many of these patients were brought in by exasperated family members of other caregivers who were overwhelmed or exhausted or by nursing-home caregivers who were unable to deal with violence or other severe symptoms, said Dr. Brett Y. Lu, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Hawaii. Resorting to care in the emergency room often occurs after “exhausted attempts to locate placement” for a patient. Elderly, mentally ill patients who are admitted to the emergency room tend to have much longer stays that other types of patients, he added.

“Elderly people with psychiatric symptoms are becoming an under-served, disadvantaged and dispossessed population in the United States,” Lu said.

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Lu also found a doubling of calls to 911 from caregivers because of violent or troublesome behavior of mentally ill elderly people.

More geriatric psychiatrists are needed to deal with the growing population of mentally ill seniors, said Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, chairman of council of communications for the  American Psychiatric Assn.

“We need to have the resources to help this population and help the caregivers of this population who are stuck in the middle,” he said.

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