Mental Health Awareness And Dilemmas With Aging Parents

It’s Mental Health Awareness Month. There is a nationwide effort to remove the long standing stigma of mental health issues. Historically, it has been very difficult for anyone to persuade a family member to get mental health help when family sees the signs. If you have an elder in your family with these issues, it is likely that you’ll meet resistance when you want that person to consider getting help.

Common Problems

Here at, we’re in the business of offering advice to families with age-related issues. It is not at all uncommon for us to hear from an adult child that their parent “is mentally ill but never got any treatment”. Or we hear that “mom is totally depressed but no one ever diagnosed her”. We also hear that the elder is socially isolated and feeling blue and the doctor said “he’s just getting old.”

We’re a nurse-lawyer, psychologist team and we find that psychological guidance is often needed. Sometimes the family doesn’t know how to approach the problem, or what to say to the aging loved one’s doctor. Both are important to address.

Elders And Mental Health In Context

Older adults, in general, did not grow up with open discussion around them about mental illness nor mental wellness. Mental illness was a hush-hush subject. People could feel ashamed to admit having emotional issues, which were dismissed as “weakness”. Some older folks came to adulthood without even the ability to identify and name their feelings. The focus in their day was on survival. Our society had a “grin and bear it” notion with no room for talk about emotional matters. By the time some elders reached retirement age, and began to experience life changes, losses of partners and purpose, they experienced intractable sadness and other feelings and had no idea how to deal with it.

The Progress

The fact that we even have a Mental Health Awareness Month shows that society’s attitudes have changed. Now, online mental health help is available. Health insurers who denied such claims for treatment in the past are now covering at least some of them. Public health officials promote reaching out and speaking to a trained professional when mental issues are present. But is that going to reach the elder with emotional issues in your family? It does not seem that public announcements are necessarily going to reach our own aging loved ones on this. Rather, family members and friends may be the key to persuading an elder to seek help for such widespread problems as depression.

An Approach

Let’s imagine for a moment that you, an adult child, have an aging parent who seems listless all the time. Maybe they have chronic pain. They don’t want to go anywhere. They sleep too much or not enough. They eat too much or not enough. Mostly they sit around and mope or they are exceptionally irritable and sound angry. All of these behaviors can be signs of depression. Family can act if they are willing to face the problem head on.

The first step is to coordinate with any other family members who are in agreement that something must be done or this will just keep getting worse. Do your homework ahead of time. Find local mental health help resources. Plan to meet with your aging parent or other loved one and gently describe that you are worried about what you see and it is becoming a burden on you. Suggest reaching out to a health care provider and give the elder their contact information. Offer to set up an appointment for them. You can’t force anyone to get help but you can make your best effort to persuade them.

If you have permission to speak with a loved one’s doctor with an Advance Healthcare Directive, a release of information, or you were appointed a “healthcare proxy”, you can also reach out to your loved one’s treating physician. Describe what you see and ask the doctor to please evaluate your loved one for medication to help relieve the symptoms. Even without such permission, you can write to the physician and describe the problem you see, whether the doctor can respond to you personally or not. At least you can offer one-way communication of important, potentially lifesaving information.


According to the National Council on Aging, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., and rates are on the rise—especially among people age 65 and over. Grief and loss, isolation, chronic illness, declining ability to be independent and even hearing and vision loss are all factors. People going through these things need the support of others to cope with them. A professional mental health provider can help any willing person learn new coping skills so that they can regain a sense of themselves as valuable and worth caring about.

When It’s Serious

We now have a fairly new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline available everywhere in the U.S. 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you or a loved one are in a mental health crisis, you get help by dialing 988 and a trained person will answer, listen, and talk anyone through anything they’re willing to talk about. This does prevent suicide and helps many overcome the intense feelings of hopelessness and helplessness they are experiencing at that time. It does not replace therapy nor medication. It can, however steer the individual to pursue getting other supportive help.

When The Elder Refuses Help

There are certainly older adults who appear to be in need of mental health treatment but won’t seek it. Families grow very frustrated. You can’t make them see a doctor nor take medication. They can make the choice to be miserable and some do. We have seen this scenario plenty of times at The family’s task then becomes trying to manage their own frustrations and setting limits on how much time they are willing to spend with the difficult elder. For the sake of caregivers who are facing this, it is just as important to care for yourself and your emotions as it is to care for your aging relative’s needs.


  1. Mental health awareness is a “thing” now and more public information is available than ever before. Check out resources nationally and in your area for yourself or someone you care about.
  2. Take depression seriously. Know the 988 helpline is there for everyone.
  3. Make your best efforts to support a reluctant elder with mental health issues to get help by offering them resources you find for them.
  4. Mental health can be damaged by caregiving of a difficult elder. Care for your own emotions as much as you offer care for an aging person in your family.

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