We live in an era where people talk openly about mental health more than ever before. And yet, according to Mental Health America, 68% of older adults know little or nothing about depression.
It’s a staggering number that’s particularly troubling as seniors are prone to a variety of factors unique to their demographic that can put them at risk for a mental health concern, including:
- The passing of a spouse, partner, sibling(s), family members or long-time friends
- Concerns about their own health, both physical and cognitive
- Fear of falling
- Isolation and loneliness among older adults who live alone
- Side effects from medications
- Concerns about losing independence
- Financial worries
As loved ones and caregivers, it’s important to pay careful attention to the possibility of mental health concerns in older adults. It could come quickly in the aftermath of a big life change, or simply grow gradually over time. Among the warning signs include:
- Heightened stress or worry
- Increased negativity, anger or irritability
- Feelings of despair or hopelessness
- Trouble sleeping
- Changes in appetite
- New or unexplained physical symptoms, such as muscle tension or pain, shaking or sweating
- Deterioration in hygiene
- Confusion or disorientation
How to Talk to a Loved One About Mental Health
Identifying a concern is one thing, but having a conversation about it is another altogether. Conversations around mental health can be challenging with anyone, but with an aging loved one it can be even more fraught.
While society in general is more open to conversations about mental health, for many older adults it can remain a topic that’s taboo.
Many seniors grew up in a society where conversations about mental health were simply not had and could have been met with shame or fear.
It can be difficult to break that cycle, but it’s vital to try. If you notice a change in demeanor in a loved one, particularly if it persists, then it’s worth starting a conversation.
Here are some ways to ease the conversation when discussing mental health with a loved one:
- Rather than bringing up any concerns you have, begin by asking them if there’s anything troubling them. See how much they may be willing to discuss on their own terms.
- Consider bringing up the topic on a walk or outing. It may be a better environment than if someone thinks they’re being interrogated at home.
- If you don’t have any grave concerns for their mental health, then at first, just go as far in the conversation as your loved one is willing to. Any difficulty they have discussing it won’t be broken in a single day.
- Let them know that mental health is healthcare. The same way they should see someone to discuss physical ailments, the same should be true of mental health challenges.
- As conversation progresses, let them know you’re concerned for them. Again, you can liken it to a physical ailment – if they suffered a fall you’d be concerned for their health, and the same is true for their mental health.
- If they start to open up, listen. People want to be heard – at first, maybe stay away from offering suggestions or solutions, and simply let them speak.
- Involve their physician, who can track physical changes, re-consider medications and understands their medical history. A physician might also be able to recommend a trusted mental health specialist.
Helping Older Adults with Mental Health
Along with involving professionals, there are a few things you can do to help your loved one:
- Help them stay connected with friends and family. Use FaceTime, Zoom or other tech to help your loved one regularly catch up with important people in their lives if they live in another city or it’s difficult for someone to meet up in person. Social connections are one of the most important pillars of mental health.
- Encourage your loved one to start, or increase, a physical fitness program. Studies show that physical fitness has a tangible effect on mental health for people of all ages.
- Re-ignite their interest in a long-time hobby or passion. From gardening to knitting to music, engaging in a project can be beneficial to mental health and provide satisfaction in completing a project.
- Join your loved one in a community volunteer project. Find a cause important to them and help out at events. Engaging with others for a good cause can increase their sense of purpose and meaning.
- Pets can have a significant effect on mental health. If a cat or dog is feasible, getting a pet for a senior to care for can give them a companion and an increased sense of purpose. If owning a pet isn’t an option, perhaps volunteering to walk dogs at a local animal shelter could be an option.
Mental Health and Memory Care
If you’re caring for a loved one living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, we know you have a long list of concerns already, and adding caring for their mental health can increase an already heavy load.
But older adults living with dementia can have unique mental health concerns – for instance, they may not remember that a spouse, sibling or friend has passed away, and being reminded of that can lead to sadness and re-living that grief repeatedly.
They’re easily confused or disoriented, and that in itself can lead to mental health challenges.
In many cases, tending to those concerns is best done with the help of a professional, however one idea for the home is to put on music. The part of the brain that remembers song lyrics is often unaffected by the disease, and music can be a mood-booster for someone with cognitive decline. In fact, music is a common tool used in Prestige memory care communities to help connect with residents.
Of course, as a caregiver, it’s vital to tend to your own mental health as well.
Mental Health at Prestige
At Prestige, our team members get to know our residents with dedicated, personalized care. It allows us to see when someone may be showing signs of sadness, or may just not be feeling like themselves. With that knowledge, it allows us to open a door with the resident into trying to understand if there may be a concern.
“I understand you may not want to talk about your feelings. I understand that that’s not something you’re accustomed to, but I want you to know that door is always open,” says Angelique Ewing, a Life Enrichment Director with Prestige Senior Living. “If you ever want to express your feelings, you’re in a safe environment to express yourself. There’s no judgment here. No one’s going to harm you. No one’s going to make you feel bad about expressing what you need so that we can continue to meet your needs.”
To learn more about mental health at Prestige, contact the community nearest you to learn more about our approach.