10 Ways to Help Improve the Mental Health of an Elderly Parent

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Mental health is a serious problem among aging adults, who are at risk for depression, anxiety and a variety of other mental health conditions. Identifying early warning signs and creating a multi-pronged treatment plan with the help of professionals is key for helping your elderly loved one to live a happy and fulfilling life. Here are 10 ways that you can help improve the mental health of an elderly parent:

Look out for signs of declining mental health.

As part of your regular check-ins on your elderly parents, you should keep an eye out for signs of declining mental health in addition to bringing them gifts for the elderly. There are many possible signs, including eating or sleeping too much or too little; having low energy and ongoing fatigue; withdrawing from people or activities; self-medicating with smoking, drinking and/or drugs; feeling helpless, hopeless and/or guilty all the time; and thinking of hurting themselves. Educate yourself about the warning signs of various mental illnesses and look out for them in your parents.

Pay attention to contributing lifestyle factors.

Mental health can dive at any time and for any reason, but there are certain factors associated with aging that are definitely contributing factors. For instance, many older people experience the loss of close friends, family members and even spouses, and that grief can definitely contribute to depression. Acute or chronic health problems can also make mental health worse, and the same goes for the social isolation that often comes from the waning ability to drive. If you think your parent’s mental health is declining, see if there are any external factors that might have caused it.

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Open a dialogue about mental health.

In many cases, your loved one might not even know the signs of depression and anxiety or understand that they are experiencing a mental health problem. Before you do anything, you should open up a dialogue about how your elderly parent is feeling and what the motivation behind their behaviors are. Explain what various mental illnesses are and discuss whether or not they are experiencing any symptoms.

Encourage them to seek professional help.

If you suspect that your loved one has anxiety, depression or another mental health issue, then the best thing that you can do is find them a good therapist (ideally one that has experience with working with elderly people). If necessary, a psychologist can refer your parent to a psychiatrist if they think that they need medications in addition to therapy in order to manage their symptoms.

Look into support groups.

Talking to other people going through a similar situation can be really helpful for your loved one, so consider assisting them with finding a support group in their area. Support groups are especially helpful for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one or undergoing a particular health challenge like cancer. Their therapist might also be able to make some recommendations for places to find support groups, so don’t hesitate to ask them for suggestions.

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Promote social connections.

Social withdrawal presents a chicken-and-egg situation when it comes to mental health. Withdrawing from friends and family is a classic sign of depression, and enforced withdrawal such as a long hospital stay can also trigger mental health issues. Many elderly people find it hard to socialize, especially if they can’t drive or take public transportation very easily. Offer to drive them around to social occasions or volunteer to help host guests at their house so they don’t have to get out to socialize. You might also need to help them with personal hygiene like getting dressed in adaptive clothing so they will feel confident about receiving guests.

Support their interests and hobbies.

Loss of interest in hobbies and other activities they previously enjoyed is one of the major signs of depression. Therefore, it’s really important to encourage your elderly parents to keep pursuing their hobbies or to try out new ones. Try to combine their hobbies with other items on this list — for instance, if they love painting, then they can take a class at a local art store to get out of the house and socialize with people during the class.

Help them stay physically active.

Physical activity doesn’t just help to protect against certain symptoms of aging: It also stimulates your brain to release feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin that help to counteract the symptoms of mental illness. Establishing a regular exercise routine is a key part of managing mental health in people of all ages, and it’s more important than ever for elderly people. Whatever their fitness level, help them find some suitable exercises that they can safely perform, whether that’s doing chair exercises at home or taking fitness classes at the local rec center.

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Suggest that they volunteer for a cause.

While some elderly people look forward eagerly to retirement, others feel a serious loss of purpose when they leave their job behind. If your loved one says they feel useless or unmotivated, suggest that they put their hard-earned knowledge to work by volunteering for a charity that they care deeply about. Many elderly people find a lot of purpose and fulfillment in volunteering for nonprofits — some to the point where it almost becomes like another job. Offer to connect your loved one with a local nonprofit or even volunteer alongside them.

Give them something to care for.

Another thing that can help your loved one feel a sense of purpose is giving them something small to care for. A lot of people suggest pets, but it’s important to be realistic about your elderly parents’ capabilities since taking care of a dog or cat can be more of a burden than a blessing for some seniors. An easy-care houseplant such as a succulent is a more low-maintenance gift that also makes a great gift for dementia patients who may forget to water it occasionally.

What other tips do you have for improving mental health in aging parents and elderly loved ones? What treatments and management strategies have been beneficial for your parents? Let us know in the comments below!

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