How to Improve Mental Health in Elderly Parents

Medically reviewed by Dr. Mark Hrymoc, M.D.

One in four older adults has symptoms of a mental health disorder, and as the population ages, the number is expected to rise. However, mental illness is not something people should expect to occur as they age because aging is not a risk factor. So why do so many older adults avoid seeking help? Some feel they would be a burden asking for help, some don’t recognize their symptoms as mental illness, and some overlook their symptoms due to physical ailments.

If your elderly parents experience mental health symptoms, there are things you can do to improve their symptoms and their overall well-being.  

Know the Most Common Mental Illnesses in Elderly Parents

Anxiety and depression are on the rise among mental health issues among older adults. Among the anxiety disorders, specific phobia is the most common, followed by social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The National Council on Aging reports depression affects older adults in various living situations. One to five percent of older adults living in a general community, 11.5% of those hospitalized, and 13.5% of those requiring home health care struggle with depression. 

One of the most common causes of depression is a chronic physical condition, like diabetes, arthritis, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Other common conditions include heart disease, kidney disease, obesity, hypertension, and cholesterol. Many older adults have more than one chronic condition, impacting the severity of their mental health symptoms.

Recognize Risk Factors of Mental Illness in Elderly Parents

Older adults experiencing depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness likely have one or more of the common risk factors, including the following:

  • Living alone and unable to socialize with friends or family.
  • Alcohol or drug misuse.
  • Physical or mental illness or disability.
  • Chronic pain.
  • Unhealthy diet and malnutrition
  • Losing someone they love
  • Medication side effects or interactions.

While these are more common risk factors, others may be more specific to your parent’s life changes. Examples include retirement from work, financial issues, moving to a new home or assisted living, and a lack of awareness of treatment and how to reach out for help.

Overcome Barriers to Mental Health Treatment in Elderly Parents

Like all other age groups, some barriers prevent older people from seeking treatment for their mental health symptoms. You can help your elderly parents overcome barriers to get the treatment they deserve. Below are common obstacles:

  • Transportation. Older adults who can no longer drive to appointments may avoid asking you to take them because they don’t want to burden you. If you can’t take your parents, there are plenty of other options, like hiring a driver, public transportation, and community transportation agencies paid for by insurance.
  • Stigma may still exist among elderly parents because they grew up when getting treatment was unacceptable. You can find ways to show your parents that treatment today is acceptable and highly recommended. Find a peer support group they can join. They may be more willing to listen to their peers about the benefits of treatment.
  • Loss of independence. Your parents have lived whole, independent lives and may feel like they are losing their independence if they need mental health help. You can help them maintain as much of their independence as possible by letting them make their appointments and choose their doctors and counselors. Rather than force them to seek treatment, help them decide to get help for themselves.
  • Inadequate Insurance. While laws have changed requiring insurance coverage to include behavioral and mental health services, not all plans offer enough coverage for elderly parents. Let your parents know that many mental health treatment facilities offer payment plans, sliding fee scales, scholarships, and other financial help.

According to one study, other barriers include older adults not knowing where to get treatment, delayed treatment due to waiting lists, language, and affordability. Another lesser-known barrier is the lack of coordination between mental health practitioners, physicians, and other providers.

Recognize Signs of Mental Illness in Elderly Parents

Numerous verbal and physical signs suggest your parents struggle with mental health. Knowing how to spot the signs means they can receive treatment early. Look for the following warning signs of mental illness:

  • They make pessimistic statements or talk about feeling worthless or hopeless.
  • They lose interest in activities they once enjoyed.
  • They are easily agitated or irritable.
  • They talk about life being better without them or having suicidal thoughts.
  • They have changes in eating habits, like overeating or losing their appetite.
  • They have sleep disturbances, like insomnia or over-sleeping.
  • They always seem tired, even when they should have energy.
  • They can’t concentrate on tasks or stay focused in conversations.
  • They have physical aches and pains that cannot be explained.
  • They don’t take care of their hygiene like they did before.
  • They have excessive worry, stress, or fears.

Your parents may have symptoms specific to them. It could be a sign of a mental illness if you notice unusual changes in their lifestyle or how they used to be. For example, if your parent has never been a gambler but suddenly goes to the casino multiple days a week. Drinking or misusing substances, hanging out with a new set of friends that are negative influences, and spending money frivolously are other examples.

Find Mental Health Treatment for Elderly Parents

Many treatments exist for older adults that can help them live their best life as they age. The key to finding the right treatment for elderly parents is to go somewhere they will have a treatment team, all in one place, to collaborate when creating treatment plans and discussing progress.

Look for a place with a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapists, and peer support available. A treatment center will offer various services, including mental health medications, alternative medication treatments, behavioral counseling, and holistic and alternative therapies. Choose a place that also provides family therapy and support. You are an important part of trying to improve the mental health of elderly parents.