ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Aging with Schizophrenia

Jack Brageni
Friday June 14, 2019 - 06:34:00 PM

I am fortunate that I've made it as far as I have--I'm in my mid-fifties. Many people with similar psychiatric illnesses don't live this long. This is despite the commonly held expectation among non-afflicted that most people should live into their eighties or nineties. 

The average life expectancy for people with schizophrenia is about sixty years. I hope to live longer than that, but no one can predict the future. Meanwhile, I am experiencing the numerous ramifications of being older and having schizophrenia. 

In the past, I've done essays about people with mental illness having short and tragic lives, and how healthy living habits aren't promoted by treatment practitioners. Institutionalized mentally ill people are often provided with a poor diet, high in fatty and sugary foods. The medications we are mandated to take often block the ability to exercise the body. These medications are often harmful to the organs. Additionally, physicians don't try as hard to help mentally ill people have a long, healthy lifespan; this could be due to the presumption that our lives are not valuable. 

However, the focus on this week's column is that of living as a somewhat older person with this disease. And there are many aspects to that. 

Economic deprivation, (stemming from not having participated in the workforce for thirty to forty years and therefore not having retirement money to live on) is a huge limitation. Economic factors force numerous seniors into difficult circumstances and living situations. If you are disabled on top of that, it only worsens the scenarios. 

We could be forced into institutionalization by economic factors. Institutionalization changes everything, and generally not for the better. Living in restricted, deprived conditions ruins the lives of numerous mental health consumers. 

If living independently, an older, disabled person is at the mercy of the supposed safety net. We must conform to all of their mandates (such as paperwork and income verification) if we hope to receive needed money and services. 

The life of a later middle-aged, chronically mentally ill woman or man often isn't enviable. Sometimes, it is a struggle just to remain housed and to have some amount of the basic comfort we deserve and need. We aren't living "the good life"-- which many people with professional careers enjoy at this age. 

If we outlive our parents, we may need to learn additional, basic survival skills. Many adults with mental illness rely on help from parents. Some live with parents, even into their forties and fifties. 

I got kicked out of my parents' house at twenty-four. Yet, if I could have lived with parents longer, I would have done so. If we have a significant impairment affecting employability, it becomes a lot harder for us to meet our basic needs. And this difficulty doesn't go away just because of the harder circumstances of getting older. 

When older, it is usually too late to get a job at the bottom rung of the employment ladder. Such jobs usually require young people, who are able and willing to push hard to fulfill the requirements of physically demanding jobs. Imagine trying to do this when middle aged and having been heavily medicated for decades. When we get older, we need a job that requires brains and not the capacity to work really fast. Most psych meds, in my opinion, do much more to impair a patient physically, and don't do nearly as much to impair one's mental capacity. 

When we get to fifty years, we are looking more at throwing in the towel, and not so much at embarking on a new career. When we've had a lifetime of being medicated, going through episodes of severe mental illness, and possibly being institutionalized, the chances of blending into the corporate world aren't promising. 

Then, we are looking at what we want to do with our remaining time. I'm not saying you should give up. But I will say that we should do things that are within reach that we can enjoy, and/or that can give meaning to life. 

There are people with mental illness who have evaded the dismal conditions I've described above. Some have established marvelous careers and wondrous lives. But many of us with severe psychiatric disabilities are disappointed at how our lives turn out. 

When older and having been medicated longer, it adversely affects the brain, as does the progression of an underlying brain condition. Because of this, it may be harder to enjoy certain things as time goes forward. 

If we have a survivable situation, we should be thankful. Beyond that, we are better off if we can have some good moments. Life is still worth living.