When Aging Parents are Unwell (3 of 3) Where to get help if your parent has a mental illness

Posted by on Sep 1, 2021 in Health Care Team and System | 0 comments

When Aging Parents Are Unwell: Part III

Where to get help if your parent has a mental illness

Mental health problems can occur at any age and any stage of life. Some individuals have chronic mental health problems that they must manage during their life time. Other people develop mental illness in later life.  The most common problems are depression and anxiety.


Depression is not an emotion!  It is a disorder with affective (mood), cognitive (mental), and physical symptoms. Depression is not feeling sad about a loss or disappointment. Surveys show that about 10-15% of otherwise healthy older people suffer from depression.  Depression is much higher when the individual has other health problems. As high as 30 – 45% in those who have had a recent heart attack, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.

Wondering if your parent might have depression?  Here are some warning signs that you can watch for or ask about:

  • May or may not look sad
  • May cry easily
  • Low energy, excessive fatigue
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Eats too much or too little
  • Feelings of guilt or regret
  • Withdraws from usual activities
  • Avoids family or friends
  • Easily irritated
  • Not keeping up personal appearance
  • Poor concentration or memory
  • Thoughts of suicide

How can you help?

If your parent is showing several of these signs over a period of time, it is wise to talk about your concerns. Depression is treatable. Ask mom or dad to see the doctor. The most important thing you can do is be supportive. Know that depression does not mean the person is weak.  You cannot simply “pull up your socks” and get over it.

Being around someone who is depressed can be “depressing.”  Keep your perspective and sense of humour. Be patient.

Feelings of anxiety are a normal reaction to fear and uncertainty, and everyone feels anxious from time to time. The mental health problem of anxiety is much more: it is intense; it lasts for long periods of time, and can occur “out of the blue.” One study showed that 10-15% of seniors have anxiety. This is probably underestimated. Anxiety can occur along with depression.

Anxiety is both frightening and confusing to the individual. Symptoms, such as pounding heartbeat, can be so intense that the person thinks it might be a heart attack. Because the symptoms can occur without warning, and without any apparent reasons, the person may report “I feel like I am going crazy.” Like depression, anxiety is not caused by personal weakness and cannot just be ignored.

Wondering if your parent might have anxiety?  Here are some warning signs to ask about or notice:


  • Pounding heart beat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Vivid dreams

Behaviour and Thinking

  • Avoid social situations
  • Excessive worry
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Racing thoughts
  • Memory loss

How can you help?

Anxiety is not well understood.  People need to know that anxiety is a real problem and that treatment is available. Some older adults do not want to talk about their feelings and may have fears about seeing a mental health professional.  You can help by encouraging them to talk to a doctor. You can also help by recognizing that anxiety is a serious problem that affects the quality of daily life.  It will not go away by using “mind over matter” approach. Again, try to be supportive. If you are not sure how to do this, talk to a mental health professional for advice or visit the websites at the end of the article.

Can medications help?

When used carefully and appropriately, medications can relieve the symptoms of depression and anxiety.  Because of the risk of suicide, treating depression can be life saving! Often it takes a trial and error approach to find the right medication. Your parent might have to try several medications to find the one that is best. The physician and the pharmacist can be helpful in choosing medications that will treat the symptoms, with the fewest side effects.

Can therapy help?

When someone has depression or anxiety, or both, talking to a mental health professional can help.  Therapy helps the person see the problem in a different way.  The therapist can help the individual find personal strengths, accept and adapt to losses, and change thinking patterns. Your parent may not know where to seek help.  You can look for mental health services by contacting the local health authority, or checking the provincial government website.

More information
Canadian Mental Health Association www.cmha.ca
Public Health Agency of Canada, Division of Aging and Seniors


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