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Seniors And Mental Health: How to Support an Aging Loved One

Aug 18, 2022 By Ashley Abramson
Adult son putting his arm around elderly father

Getting older comes with a lot of changes — including the possibility of developing mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. It’s estimated that one in four older adults experiences some type of mental health disorder, and due to population aging, the total number of adults in need of mental health support is expected to double by 2030. So chances are, you personally know a senior — or you eventually will — who may be facing mental health challenges

Aging can bring about new or worsening depression or anxiety for several reasons. Medical issues common in older age, such as dementia and stroke, are known to affect mental health. The normal process of aging can also contribute to new mental health symptoms. “As people age, many factors contribute to increased anxiety and depression such as medication, insomnia, and changes in the way cortisol is processed," says Monika Downey, Ph.D., MSCP, One Medical’s national co-director of Integrated Behavioral Health.

Stressful or painful transitions in older adulthood can also impact seniors’ mental health, says

Elle Markman, PsyD, MPH, One Medical’s national co-director of Integrated Behavioral Health. Older people often face major changes in their physical and cognitive abilities and daily routines due to health conditions. This can lead to loneliness and isolation, both of which can contribute to mental health conditions.

Even if you’re not directly caring for an aging loved one, you can play an important role in protecting their mental health. Here’s how you can support the senior in your life:

1. Know what to look for

Everybody experiences a bit of sadness or worry from time to time — that’s just part of life. But if you’re noticing major changes from your loved one’s baseline, they may be struggling with a mental health condition.

Keep an eye out for persistent changes in mood that happen several days a week for a few weeks or more, including changes in behavior and daily functioning. For instance, maybe they’re normally cheerful, but now tear up every time you talk. Perhaps your mom usually likes to go out for a walk every day, but she’s been staying pent up at home, or your normally energetic father is sleeping in more than usual.

These changes don’t always indicate a mental health condition, but they’re worth asking a medical or behavioral health expert about. “My advice would be to look for changes in energy level, mood, and appetite, and consider encouraging the person to talk to their primary care provider or mental health provider,” says Markman.

2. Normalize talking about mental health

Speaking up about your struggles can be hard, especially if you’ve never dealt with anxiety or depression before. For an older person, there may be concern about stigmas around mental health conditions or resistance to asking for help.

Try helping your senior loved one understand how common it is to need a bit of support from time to time. Sharing your own feelings, Downey says, may help open up conversation about how to get help. If your loved one realizes they’re not alone in their struggle, they might be more open to talking about their own.

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3. Keep it conversational

Terms like “major depressive disorder” or “clinical anxiety” can feel overwhelming. Your loved one may be more open to discussing their experience or seeking out support if you frame your concern in a different way.

For example, rather than telling your mom you think she’s depressed, share that you’ve noticed she doesn’t have as much energy lately and you miss getting together like you used to. “It may help to tie your loved one's experience to their values, so they know you care about them and they’re not just a problem to be solved,” says Markman.

4. Encourage behaviors that support mental health

Behavioral activation — or using your daily routine to influence your emotions — is one of the most effective ways to combat depression. A healthcare provider or therapist can guide your loved one in how to get more active, but you can play a role in supporting them, too.

Help the senior in your life set small, attainable goals for improving their well-being, whether it’s getting up a few days a week at a certain time to eat breakfast or walking to the end of the street and back. It may help to join your senior friend or family member if they’re struggling with motivation.

5. Seek professional help

As much as you may want to, you cannot help your loved one all on your own. While you may be able to provide some emotional support, mental health experts and medical professionals are trained to identify and create treatment plans for all sorts of mental health issues. To start, encourage your loved one to see their primary care provider. Primary care providers are equipped to treat the whole person, knowing that the physical affects the mental and vice versa. They can help establish the right care plan specific to peoples’ unique needs, whether that’s identifying lifestyle changes, finding a therapist or coach, or prescribing medication.

If your loved one is hesitant to seek professional support, it can help to draw the comparison between mental healthcare and physical healthcare. Remind them that it’s just as important to seek care for mental health issues as it is to be treated for physical conditions like broken bones or diabetes.

Your loved one may lack the motivation to take these steps or may not feel well enough to do so, so try to remove as many barriers as possible. Offer to help book their appointment, reach out to potential therapists or check their insurance coverage. It may even be helpful to attend your loved one’s appointment, if it’s okay with them, especially if you’ve noticed symptoms. “If it feels right to the patient, we try to engage family members and friends in their care”, says Markman. “It’s another layer of support and connection for the patient, and it helps us partner with the patient to determine what will be most helpful.”

In the process, don’t forget to take care of yourself too — you play a crucial role in your loved one’s well being, and sometimes that means you need a break. “I always use the oxygen mask analogy,” Downey says. “You need to take care of yourself in order to help someone else.”

At One Medical, we believe your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Our suite of behavioral health services, Mindset by One Medical, is included as part of our standard, comprehensive primary care membership and our providers can effectively screen, diagnose, and treat everything from day-to-day stress to major depression.

Have more questions about managing your mental health? Our primary care team is here to help. Schedule a mental health visit with one of our primary care providers today.

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Ashley Abramson

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. 1Life Healthcare, Inc. and the One Medical entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.