Addressing the Mental Health Needs of a Parent


Addressing the Mental Health Needs of a Parent


By Laura Galbreath, MPP, INCITE Consulting Solutions

I felt somewhat confident and prepared to navigate the medical needs of an aging parent after years of dealing with my mother’s health issues. But I was not prepared for dealing with the onset of my father’s anxiety disorder when my mother passed away. While multiple trips to the emergency room confirmed that his heart was healthy, it was a long journey to understanding that his chest pain, and other physical ailments including panic attacks, were the result of - and often amplified by - anxietyI work in the mental health field, and I still felt overwhelmed trying to find appropriate services for my father (especially during COVID-19). I also faced challenges managing the risks and benefits of my father's medications and responding to dismissive medical staff - all the while doing my best to provide him with proper moral support. 

Older Adults and Mental Health

Our country's aging population is growing fast. An estimated 75 million Americans will be over the age of 65 by 2030. Furthermore, approximately one in five adults will experience a mental illness, substance use disorder, or both. Taking these trends and statistics into consideration, that means that nearly 15 million older adults will need some level of help for behavioral health conditions by 2030. 

From anxiety and social isolation to drinking too much, problems gambling, and dependence on opioid pain medications, the range of potential mental health needs of older adults is far and wide. It surprises many people to learn that some of the highest rates of suicide are among older men. Depression is a common mental health disorder for seniors, but talk therapies are underused among this population. The ongoing shortage of mental health and addiction treatment services, especially among geriatric specialists, means that family caregivers must work harder to be an advocate for their loved ones.

Caring for an Aging Parent's Mental Health

Despite the aforementioned obstacles, I made sure my dad saw his primary care doctor and accessed an online psychologist at I knew he needed to speak with a professional right away; I also knew COVID-19 restrictions were causing long waiting lists and were going to make getting the right support for my father's mental health difficult. With some technical support and encouragement, he adjusted to the technology and developed a good relationship with his online therapist. He also speaks to a grief counselor, takes medications, and it is working to implement healthy coping skills. We have heart-to-heart conversations that are good for both of us. Our chats show me that he wants to get better and that there is a way forward. Here are some mental health caregiving tips and advice from my experience:

1. Get to know signs and symptoms. Warning signs of emotional distress and tips on ways to assess your loved one’s mental health needs, including online screening tools, are great mental health resources to explore with your parent.

2. Join the conversation. While I don’t need to participate on individual therapy calls, it does help when I can join the call once in a while to bring up important observations and to hear helpful advice from the therapist. Given the risks and benefits of psychotropic medications, it has been especially important that I have access to my dad’s primary care doctor. While behavioral health is becoming integrated into primary care, many mental health problems are under-recognized and under-treated in primary care, especially among older adults where symptoms manifest physically or are complicated by physical affects. 

3. Get the facts. It’s helpful to research and share key facts with your parent including the difference between situational and clinical depression or the difference between anxiety and a panic attack. I share mental health articles and tidbits of information with my dad all the time. Sometimes he absorbs it and other times he doesn’t - and that’s okay.

4. Make sure medications are taken as prescribed. Medication adherence is crucial to managing any chronic or long-term condition, including mental health issues. You can help your parent stay organized around dosages and times by making lists and calendars with them.

5. Lean into your support network(s). I continue to tap into a support network for my dad and myself as the caregiver. Whether it is our priest, family members, or friends, I encourage him to reach out as much as possible. In addition to getting support, I remind my dad that it's an opportunity to give back and help others. It has also been great to hear from family and friends that have shared their experience with managing depression and anxiety.  

6. Explore technology support options. In addition to online treatment, we’ve installed apps like Carely to coordinate care and Calm for guided meditations. We've also downloaded a number of podcasts and audiobooks.

7. Identify personal care routines. In order to help my father through his grief, depression, and anxiety, I realize I must take care of myself. Between the loss of two loved ones and the sudden physical and mental difficulties of my formerly solid dad, I’ve experienced a wealth of emotions. Exercise, a grief support group, day trips, plus an amazing social network have all helped me through these difficult times. Find what works best for you.

8. Lead with trust. A trusting relationship can go a long way when having difficult conversations with parents experiencing mental health and addiction issues. Having those open and honest conversations are so important, especially if you are caregiving from a distance.

For more tips on mental health caregiving, read How to be a Mental Health Advocate

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