By 2030 Maryland and the rest of the nation can expect the population of seniors to be nearly double what it is today. Along with the increased number of elderly come increased health concerns, including the often-overlooked issue of mental health problems.

Health care workers are already bracing for the wave of physical ailments that will need more attention as the population ages, but readiness to deal with additional mental health issues is lacking. A recent eye-opening study from the Institute of Medicine reports that there are not enough medical personnel trained to provide mental health care to older Americans.

The IOM reported that more than 5.6 million Americans over 65 already have a condition requiring mental health treatment, including substance abuse disorders. That number could grow to as high as eight million. The most common mental health problems in this age group are depression and dementia.

Depression most commonly begins earlier, in middle age; simply aging doesn’t cause mental health ailments. However, elderly people’s mental health problems, when they do occur, might be overlooked because health care providers are focused on physical ailments.

Treatment of physical ailments can even initiate or exacerbate mental health problems, due to prescription drug side effects and the danger of creating drug dependency. Older bodies metabolize drugs differently, so doctors need to monitor dosages carefully. Also, the interaction of mental and physical health means that patients suffering from mental illnesses may be less likely to take care of their physical health, so health care complications and costs go up.

A reality faced by the wave of aging seniors is the loss of friends, family and support systems as they grow older. Grieving is difficult, more so when health care workers are not sensitive to the profound potential mental health impact of personal loss.

It is important to seek out advocates for persons who need mental health care, and an experienced attorney may be a very helpful resource, especially considering the special health needs of elderly Maryland residents.