2022 California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies (CBHA) Conference

Aging, Mental Illness and the Years Ahead: A Consumer’s Perspective

Having a mental illness, I try not to burden myself by thinking too much about the future. As I turn fifty-seven this fall, I do worry about how I will be able to function in the years to come. For people like myself who suffer from undue anxiety, there is no shortage of worries.

We all face an unknown future with regard to how well we will age and what challenges and difficulties are to come. However, having a mental illness adds even more unknowns such as: the long-term effects of years of psychotropic medications; the minds ability to think clearly; the ability to live comfortably in good health and financial security; as well as emotional and interpersonal skills. My resolve is just trying to stay healthy and move forward – keeping my anxieties (triggers) out of my mind by being constructively busy and productive.

Analytically, my life and planning for the future can be divided into various components. As a former accountant, analytical thinking is not always a positive frame of mind. I have the healthcare portion of my life; my spiritual, religious components; my emotional life; my family life and my financial life component. Trying to juggle each of them as time, conditions and situations warrant is a difficult task even for those not suffering from chronic illness.

Healthcare is complex, confusing and expensive with too many variables for the consumer. Dealing with various doctors, and insurance companies can be overwhelming. Understanding our healthcare priorities from dieting to proper nutrition can be conflicting and confusing as well. Another issue concerns the body’s reaction to being on psyche meds for ten, fifteen, twenty years. Does anyone really know the long-term effects? And if the outlook is perplexing, uncomfortable and disheartening – I must keep moving forward no matter the terrible mental pain (often worse than physical pain) and live with the unpleasant presumptions. I cannot think about family genetics, but instead focus on eating right, avoiding the adverse and the harmful (foods as well as people and situations), exercise properly and offset negative thoughts with the positive.

Accepting the religious and spiritual aspects of life with confidence was a difficult step made easier with the assistance of a spiritual director. Faith led me to focus and understand the larger, more important components and develop relationships with what cannot be seen and humanly understood – a continuous process of learning to let go, placing oneself in God’s hands. How will aging and its complications effect my spiritual beliefs? Will health complications and other life issues create grievous doubt or will I grow in prudence, insight and perception?

Coping with emotions (my own and others) can be very difficult and perplexing. Finding a balance on a moment to moment basis and dealing with a loved one’s issues, can be difficult in the best of times. Mental illness clouds and distorts emotions as well as cognitive reasoning. How will aging affect my ability in dealing with various issues? Misinterpretations, even with Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) can occur all too frequently. My tool box – methods of dealing positively with life – are useful if I am able to focus and remember to use them. Can one’s wisdom grow with aging?

Will I become more of a burden sooner, rather than later in life? Will I be an able caretaker for my family or will mental health issues interfere? Will we be able to live together or will the strain (physical, financial, emotional) be so difficult that an assisted living facility will be the only viable option – warehoused like so many of the elderly today?

Along with many consumers, I strongly rely on our government for financial stability and quality of life issues. Will there be adequate financial support, ten, fifteen, twenty years from now? I hear so much about saving for the future, the importance of financial planning, but all most of us can do is hope and pray that we will be adequately cared for by the government and our families.

Years of sometimes painful therapy has brought me to a point of avoiding (most of the time) these series of anxieties and obsessions, but I am not always successful, for fear is ready to pounce on my perceived weaknesses. I must remember that rational thinking is quickly lost when triggers strike and the pain quickly ruins the resemblance of any normalcy. There was a time when the obsessive part of my brain, from the pain of over-thinking, would be overburdened and overextended, but I have to remember, remind myself that to some questions there are no answers, just yet, and that there is more to this life, beyond our senses. I continuously battle that green monster of dread, doubt, envy, and hate, who sneaks into our conscience and sub-conscience through dreams, the mass-media and everyday encounters via a culture that really is not conducive to any individual suffering from any of life’s many ailments.

I am now learning, slowly at times, to be more in the present not years ahead. The basic question I must continually ask myself – am I doing the best I can to live life as my beliefs dictate: living for both the present, tomorrow and the future beyond the week, month – years down the road?

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