Understanding the Connection Between Behavioral Health and Mental Health in Older Adults

Although the terms behavioral health and mental health refer to different aspects of how a person thinks and acts, there is some overlap between them.

For example, a mental health condition can have an impact on a person’s behavioral health. And a person’s routine behaviors can bring on or worsen mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression.

While people of all ages experience disorders that affect their mental and behavioral health, some are particularly common among seniors. Dementia can also factor into mental health for seniors and affect their behavioral health.

As a behavioral health care provider, Park Senior Villas works with families to help them understand how all of the pieces “fit together.” Helping residents in our communities enjoy the best possible quality of life is always our priority, and the best approach to achieving that goal is ongoing collaboration between our staff and residents’ family members.

What Is Behavioral Health?

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services offers a simple description of behavioral health, saying it “includes the emotions and behaviors that affect your overall well-being.”

Behavioral health can encompass illnesses commonly associated with mental health, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But it’s much broader than that. For instance, addictions, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and eating disorders are also considered behavioral health conditions. 

Essentially, behavioral health is an umbrella term that includes mental health, which centers more on thoughts and feelings than on behaviors — although as noted earlier, mental health conditions can influence behavior.

Treatments for Behavioral Health Conditions

The purpose of behavioral health care treatment (also referred to as interventions) is to change the behaviors and other factors in a person’s usual routine that are harmful to his or her well-being.

Sometimes there’s a physical reason for a behavioral or mental health disorder, such as a chemical imbalance in the brain. In those cases, prescription medications can be used to successfully treat the disorder.

But unless a physical condition is causing the disorder, the preferred course of action in most cases is to try non-drug treatments first. Choosing medications as the first remedy may only mask the underlying problem and can have undesired effects.

Senior Mental Health and Behavioral Health Issues

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes an estimated 20% of people who are 55 or older experience some sort of mental health concern. Among the most common are anxiety, mood disorders such as depression, and severe cognitive impairment.

According to the CDC, factors that can contribute to mental health issues for seniors can include:

  • Lack of social and emotional support, often because of isolation
  • Poor life satisfaction, which results from health concerns, a person’s living environment, and socioeconomic factors
  • Mental distress, which can interfere with routine activities and affect physical health
  • Depression and anxiety, both of which are likely underreported in this age group

Older adults also frequently exhibit certain types of behavioral health problems, such as:

  • Difficulty sleeping, which can have an underlying physical cause, including the use of some prescription medications
  • Confusion and other issues associated with cognitive decline
  • Withdrawal from favorite pastimes and social activities, sometimes because of cognitive issues, or hearing and vision loss
  • A range of behaviors or reactions associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia

Is Dementia a Mental Health or Behavioral Health Issue?

The answer to that question isn’t straightforward, but the overall consensus of the medical community is that while dementia affects mental health, it is not a mental illness.

What dementia is, is a decline in cognitive abilities, including problem-solving and judgment, loss of memory, and challenges with communicating, all stemming from physiological changes in the brain. In time, this decline in cognition often leads to changes in behavior.

Interventions used in behavioral health care can improve the quality of life not only for seniors with dementia but also for their caregivers and families. 

The Need to Evaluate Behavioral Interventions

A behavioral intervention is an intentional change made to improve a person’s health. Getting more exercise and eating a more nutritious diet are good examples of behavioral changes that typically lead to better health outcomes.

But we don’t always understand why a specific intervention benefits one person but not another. Nor do we always know why certain behavioral health interventions work for some people with cognitive decline or dementia, but not others.

In many senior living communities these behavioral health interventions are considered part of memory care. Memory care doesn’t just address the loss of long-term memory commonly associated with Alzheimer’s disease. It includes treatment for a whole range of conditions people with dementia experience — and no two people experience dementia in the same way.

That’s why taking a what’s called a person-centered approach to memory care, like we do at Park Senior Villas, is so important.

Shaping the Future of Dementia Caregiving Through Our Partnership With TapRoot Interventions & Solutions

In 2022, Park Senior Villas engaged the services of Linda Buscemi, a psychologist and licensed behavioral health specialist who focuses on interventions for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

Linda is the co-founder and chief clinical officer of TapRoot Interventions & Solutions, a Phoenix-based company that has developed a digital assistant called Ella®.

TapRoot describes Ella as “the first personalized care management platform designed specifically for caregivers of persons with cognitive deficits.” Ella provides caregivers with “evidence-based behavioral approaches to mitigate behavioral expressions” of people with dementia.

So, what exactly does all of that mean?

Basically, Ella is a HIPAA-compliant mobile app powered by artificial intelligence. The caregiving staff at Park Senior Villas can use Ella to assist in choosing personalized, non-drug interventions for residents as needed. Ella is, literally, at their fingertips and ready to provide multiple suggestions for a specific situation on demand.

Ella provides recommendations based on the resident’s background, which family members provide through their responses to a comprehensive questionnaire. This resident-specific information is integrated with an extensive research database that is continuously updated as more feedback becomes available on which interventions work best in different situations.

With access to all of this information and the ability to automate it, Ella can remind caregivers about the best approaches when engaging with a resident, such as talking about a favorite experience to help them stay focused and calm. Ella can also detect patterns in the resident’s reactions to help guide future interventions.

Ideally, for now, caregivers connect with Linda through Ella in real time — for example, when a resident is resisting showering or getting dressed. Linda can see the resident’s complete background and health history in Ella, and use her knowledge and experience to suggest appropriate interventions. This helps Ella grow smarter.

If Linda isn’t immediately available for consultation, Ella suggests several interventions for the caregiver. Linda reviews the recommendations as soon as possible and adjusts them if necessary. She and others at TapRoot are training Ella to become as smart as possible, with the goal of eventually making the digital assistant available to family members who provide care for their loved one at home.

Using Ella to Evaluate an Innovative Intervention

An intervention we’ve used with considerable success at Park Senior Villas are robotic pets, and it was Linda who introduced the concept to our staff. Through her relationship with Mercy Care, Linda worked with Ageless Innovation to evaluate the Joy for All robotic pets as an intervention for people with dementia.

Park Senior Villas was among the communities that participated in the evaluation. Using Ella, our staff members provided feedback about when the pets helped residents (e.g., easing agitation) and when they did not (e.g., reducing exit seeking).

The experience has been a win for everyone involved. Ageless Innovation learned valuable information about its products. Ella learned how to tailor the intervention for better use. Park Senior Villas gained another useful tool, and many residents have benefited from befriending the furry little four-legged robots.

Could Our Behavioral Health Care Improve Your Loved One’s Quality of Life?

Older adults with memory issues can have difficulty regulating their emotions. At times, these emotions can cause them to act in ways that create a lot of stress for themselves, at-home caregivers, and family members.

At Park Senior Villas, we developed our behavioral health care program in conjunction with dementia-certified specialists and clinical professionals, like Linda Buscemi. It provides a solution for seniors with mental health behaviors that aren’t easily managed at home.

Here, residents live in an engaging environment that helps them feel comfortable. Our behavioral health care program includes:

  • A thorough functional and cognitive assessment when a resident first joins us
  • A comprehensive behavioral health care plan tailored to the resident’s unique needs
  • Support from a team trained in dementia behavioral health care approaches and strategies
  • Medication management to ensure proper adherence and to monitor for potential drug interactions or adverse side effects
  • Frequent interactions and ongoing communications with family members to cultivate a strong support system
  • A broad range of person-appropriate daily activities that foster a sense of purpose

Instead of merely addressing symptoms and behaviors as they occur, we help residents focus on what they can do — throughout the day, every day. More often than not, this approach avoids challenging situations altogether.

If you would like to learn more about memory care and behavioral health care at Park Senior Villas, contact us. We’ll be happy to answer your questions and, if you want, we’ll set up a personal visit for you at any of our communities.

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