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Mental illness in seniors is a topic that isn’t discussed enough, especially with data showing two out of every three seniors aren’t getting the proper care and support they need. According to the CDC, over 20% of older adults suffer from mental health disorders with depression being the most reported among older adults. Here are 5 ways to talk to your senior parent about mental health and depression.

Understanding Age-Related Changes

As our parents enter their senior years, it’s crucial to recognize and understand the natural changes that occur with aging. These changes can significantly impact their mental health, and distinguishing between normal aging and symptoms of mental illness becomes essential. Age-related changes can manifest in various ways, such as slower processing speeds, difficulty in multitasking, and mild forgetfulness. However, it’s important to note that these changes, while a natural part of aging, do not necessarily signify mental illness. By acknowledging and adapting to these normal changes, we can provide better support and avoid unnecessary alarm or misdiagnosis.

The challenge lies in discerning when these age-related changes cross the line into the realm of mental health concerns. For instance, while it’s common for seniors to occasionally forget names or appointments, frequent memory lapses or confusion could be indicative of more serious issues like depression or even early signs of dementia. It’s vital to observe and understand the extent and frequency of these changes. Regular conversations and engagement can help in monitoring these shifts. When discussing mental health with our senior parents, emphasizing the difference between normal aging and potential mental health symptoms can encourage them to open up about their experiences without fear of stigma or misunderstanding.

It’s also essential to approach these conversations with sensitivity and empathy. Seniors might feel vulnerable or defensive when discussing changes in their mental capabilities. Approaching the topic with respect and reassurance can make a significant difference. We should emphasize that experiencing mental health issues is not a sign of weakness or a natural consequence of aging but rather a health concern that deserves attention and care, just like any physical ailment.

In these discussions, it’s beneficial to incorporate a focus on maintaining mental agility and well-being through activities that stimulate the mind and promote social interaction. Encouraging activities like puzzles, reading, social gatherings, or even learning new skills can help seniors stay mentally active. This not only aids in differentiating normal aging from mental health issues but also contributes to an overall healthier and more fulfilling lifestyle in their later years. Being informed and supportive in this way creates a nurturing environment for our senior parents, helping them navigate the complexities of aging with confidence and dignity.

1. Offer emotional support

Provide a safe space for your parent to talk about their depressive symptoms and overall mental health. Offer a hug or encouragement as they open up to you and provide comfort in their time of need. A listening ear without judgment can alleviate many seniors’ fears of coming forward with their depressive symptoms. Depression may arise with a major life change such as a loss, retirement, or battling an illness. Just being there for your senior parent can help them explore their symptoms and get to the root of the depression.

2. Listen to their concerns

Your senior parent may have questions and concerns about different treatments or the way they’re feeling. Listen to each concern they have without criticizing or telling them how they should feel. Ensure you aren’t offering suggestions or your own perspective when they’re talking about their symptoms. This requires the focus to be all on them, validating their feelings and allowing them to choose how they want to move forward.

3. Gently suggest treatment options

Your senior parent may have some resistance to treatment options, which is why treading gently towards this topic will bring the best results. Help them piece together their symptoms to recognize they may have a problem they aren’t able to handle on their own. Encourage them that it’s possible to feel better than they do now. Then, bring up the name of a therapist or psychiatrist who can assist them in making treatment decisions that best suit them.

4. Consult a trusted professional

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for the treatment of depression and other mental disorders. Many seniors may need a combination of talk therapy, medications, and even art or pet therapy to lessen depressive symptoms. Talking with a trusted professional about the best path forward for your senior parent may help them alleviate any misgivings they have to treatment and shed light on the options they have to feel better.

5. Stay connected with them

Loneliness can contribute to depressive symptoms, making it that much more important to keep up with your senior parent on their symptoms and treatment options. Create a visiting schedule or phone calls so they have something to look forward to during the week. Check in with them as often as you’re able to just to say hi or catch up. You can also stay in the loop by following up with their practitioner or psychiatrist if your parent allows you access.

6. Plan for emergencies

When addressing mental health in seniors, it’s essential to establish a comprehensive emergency plan for potential crises. This plan should include recognizing signs of a mental health emergency, such as severe depression or confusion, and having a readily accessible list of emergency contacts, including healthcare providers, mental health professionals, and relatives. Additionally, legal documents like a healthcare power of attorney should be updated and at hand to guide decisions during a crisis. It’s also crucial to regularly review and practice this plan with family members and caregivers, ensuring everyone understands their role and can respond swiftly and effectively, respecting the senior’s wishes and health needs. This preparedness is key to providing prompt and appropriate care in emergency situations.

7. Encourage Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Promoting healthy lifestyle choices can have a significant impact on mental health. Encourage your senior parent to engage in regular physical activity, maintain a balanced diet, and ensure they get adequate sleep. Physical exercise has been shown to improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression. A nutritious diet supports overall brain health, and proper sleep is essential for emotional well-being. Additionally, fostering social connections and encouraging participation in community activities can enhance their sense of belonging and purpose. These healthy habits not only contribute to physical health but also play a crucial role in maintaining mental wellness, making it easier for seniors to cope with the challenges of aging.

Contact Wellspring Center for Prevention to learn more about a number of programs dedicated to seniors that can assist with promoting healthy decisions, creating a healthy environment, and engaging seniors in education towards a positive lifestyle.

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