Talking to Seniors About Mental Illness

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Mental illness has been poorly represented in media for decades—to the point that many have serious misconceptions about what mental illness is. Most of the time, mental illness is not what one sees in film, and it is far more prevalent than one might realize. According to a John Hopkins study, roughly 26% of Americans 18 and older have some form of mental illness, most commonly a depressive or anxious condition.

With such a high percentage of adults suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder, it is possible that your elderly loved one may suffer at some point in time. Talking to seniors about mental illness could make a substantial difference in their day-to-day lives. Broach the sensitive topic with compassion, offer information, and lend a helping hand as necessary.

Talking to Seniors About Mental Illness

Explain that mental health is just as important as physical health

When your elderly loved one is physically sick or injured, they know to take a step back to take care of themselves. They’re aware that, if they don’t, their health condition will worsen and take longer to heal. The same goes for one’s mental health. When one allows their mental health to go untreated, they are only worsening their problem.

Comparing one’s mental health to their physical health is a great way to help your elderly loved one understand how it should be treated.

Share potential symptoms

Much of the stigma older adults hold about mental illness is what symptoms may look like. Though they can vary based on what condition a senior is experiencing, common symptoms include:

  • Noticeable changes in mood, energy, appetite, or sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts and/or behaviors that impede one’s life
  • Persistent headaches, pain, or digestive issues
  • Obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior
  • Seeing, hearing, or feeling things others do not

With this information, seniors will be able to better recognize when it is they need help. They can then reach out to their loved ones, as well as a medical professional as necessary.

Actively listen

Half of the battle of speaking to your elderly loved one about mental health is listening to them. As you speak with your loved one about the importance of mental health, listen to how they respond. This is especially important if they don’t have the vocabulary to discuss their feelings, whether it is because of a lack of knowledge or cognitive impairment.

Active listening involves focusing on what your loved one has to say, maintaining eye contact, repeating what they’ve said, and using other social cues to show you’re listening. This is not only for the benefit of your loved one, but for your own understanding as well.

Understand the difference between empathy and sympathy

If you think of “empathy” and “sympathy” as interchangeable, you’re not alone, but you are incorrect. Approaching this difficult conversation with sympathy, while it shows caring, puts space between yourself and your loved one. You see their situation through your eyes instead of theirs.

Alternatively, in expressing empathy, you share their feelings and experiences. It fosters a deeper sense of understanding and care that makes your loved one feel truly seen. While it isn’t easy to switch from a sympathetic lens to an empathetic lens, it will make a world of difference in your conversation.

Promoting wellness in seniors

Don’t forget to educate yourself too

Of course, you can’t have a quality conversation if you’re not first educated on the topic yourself. Before speaking with your loved one, take time to educate yourself on the facts and figures about mental health—both generally, and for older adults. When they have questions, you can hopefully provide them with the answers they are looking for.

Mental health resources for older adults

If your loved one expresses they are struggling with their mental health, you should be honored they are trusting you with this information. Let them know that it is completely normal to feel this way from time to time, and try offering them assurance. However, if they have quite serious symptoms, it may be time to try to get them help.

Luckily, there are a variety of resources designed to help older adults through a difficult time in their lives. If you’re not sure where to start, consider these options.

If your loved one needs support to age in place, consider home care

For many older adults, aging is a serious point of contention. It is stressful to know they can’t take care of themselves with the same efficiency as they were once able to. As concerns escalate, so can their mental health issues.

An at-home caregiver can help eliminate these concerns. If your loved one lives in the greater Chicago area, Home Care Powered by AUAF can help. For over 30 years, our caregivers have supported seniors in the city and suburbs alike, and we’d be happy to help you too. For more information, give us a call at 773-274-9262.

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