Aging Parents And Mental Health-Can’t We Do Better?

It is well understood by now that the pandemic had adverse effects on mental health, particularly for school aged children. But officials have noted that isolated elders suffered tremendously as well. Our elders are the most vulnerable to Covid, and had to stay away from those they love because of the risk of life-threatening infection. Those who survived the worst of the pandemic, with the risk not entirely gone even now, are still paying the price of being alone for so long.

Social isolation is a well documented issue that is associated with poor health outcomes, premature death and increased risk of dementia. We evolved in tribes and seem to be hard-wired to need connection and association with others. True, there are loners who do not seem to need the company of others very much, but that’s not most people. The result of social isolation, necessary as it was to prevent the spread of a potentially fatal bout of Covid, has left its mark. Depression may be more common than ever. And aging parents may not be likely to seek out treatment for depression, as their generation seems to have a general bias against mental health treatment. They would say “I’m not crazy. I don’t need to see a therapist”. Or “I don’t believe in that stuff”. In short, they resist the idea that a therapist could help them.

Symptoms of Depression

Depression shows itself in many ways. In our own aging loved ones, we may see loss of interest in formerly enjoyable activities. They look sad. They don’t want to participate. We may see significant weight gain or loss, and changes in eating habits. There can be sleep disturbances. Some who suffer from depression become irritable, angry or withdrawn from even simple conversations. For their families, it can be very frustrating. You see that something is not right but don’t know what to do about it.

Telemedicine

One thing about mental health help has definitely changed during the pandemic. That is, health insurers became more willing to pay for telemedicine. That includes psychological help. Previously, they resisted payment for anything other than in-person visits to a therapist. Now, insurers are reimbursing therapists for telemedicine, in video therapy visits. That can help. A recurring issue, however is that the most experienced mental health providers are not being paid by insurers at market rates and some decline to accept insurance altogether. Some will not accept Medicare payment. That means paying out of pocket for therapy. Some can afford it, and some cannot.

Imagine that you have an aging parent who seems listless and looks downcast a lot these days. You think your loved one is depressed. What can you say? What can you do?

Medication

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When you approach some primary care physicians about depression in an aging parent, they are usually ready and willing to prescribe anti-depressant medication. These medications can help control symptoms well, but they do not get to the underlying causes of depression. To unearth those, one needs a mental health provider to talk to about what is going on. Anti-depressant medication works best when combined with some regular talk therapy visits.

How Can You Persuade Someone To See A Therapist?

The most resistant folks won’t go, even if you think they really need it. For others, who may be on the fence, you can help by doing some research to find an experienced therapist who treats depression in elders. Your aging parent’s primary care doctor may be a good source for a referral. Most therapists will talk to a potential client on the phone before making an appointment, to try to determine if they are a good fit for each other. Different personalities and therapy styles matter. If you find a therapist who might work well with your aging loved one, you can describe what you like about the person to your elder and encourage trying it out. Finding the right therapist is not so easy. If you do the research before suggesting this, it can really help an elder who may have no idea how to start.

Hope

According to the American Psychological Association, about 75% of people who seek therapy do derive some benefit from it. Those are good odds. When a person is depressed, they can feel hopeless and helpless. A good therapist can help turn that in a better direction. If you think your aging parent is depressed, whether from the pandemic-related isolation or not, consider that help is available. Encourage it. Research to find a right person. It can improve your loved one’s quality of life tremendously.

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