Mental health can be a tough topic for people of any age to discuss, but especially so for older adults. The current senior generation typically grew up believing problems with mental well-being weren’t to be discussed, even among family members. People were often left to struggle with tough times, such as grief and loss, on their own.
While views toward mental health are changing for younger generations, it’s still difficult for many older adults to share their emotions. It can leave family members wondering and worrying when they notice a change in their senior loved one’s disposition. Though the stress of the working world might be behind an older person, there are other difficulties that aren’t. And the reality is that the older we get, the more losses we experience.
If you’d like to talk to a senior close to you about how they are feeling, we have some tips you might find useful.
Tips for Discussing Mental Health with a Senior Loved One
As is true of any difficult conversation you need to have with family and friends, pick a quiet place and time. Make sure you will have privacy and not be interrupted. Even if nothing is wrong, the senior might be embarrassed to have anyone overhear the discussion. You can make the conversation a little easier for both of you by being mindful of how difficult this can be for an older person. Here are some suggestions to get started:
- Be respectful and kind: When you are worried that something is seriously wrong, it’s easy to feel anxious and rushed. You want to get to the bottom of things quickly. Unfortunately, that usually doesn’t work. Remind yourself to be patient, and to use a tone of voice that is both respectful and kind. Don’t discount or judge how the person is feeling.
- Demonstrate empathy, not sympathy: Understanding the difference between empathy and sympathy is important. While it can help if your loved one feels you are empathetic to their struggle and want to help, if they sense you are feeling sorry for them it can change the dynamic of the whole conversation. No one wants to be pitied. Instead, use more compassionate language. For example, you could say “it means a lot that you trust me with this” or “I’m sorry you are going through this.”
- Be a good listener: This can be challenging to do when you are witnessing someone you love struggle. The tendency for most people is to jump in and offer solutions. But this isn’t always the right approach. Sometimes a person might just need a friendly face and a kind ear. Listening without interrupting may be the best thing you can do. That means being fully present in the conversation, and not trying to leap ahead to solving the problem.
If you aren’t familiar with mental health resources, both local and national, here are a few you might find useful.
Mental Health Resources for Older Adults
First, consider if your senior loved one is close to their pastor, rabbi, or other religious leader. Sometimes older people may be more open to having discussions with someone they think of as a spiritual person. Here are other resources you might want to explore if your loved one is willing:
- Local agency on aging: Most cities and counties have an agency on aging that acts as a clearinghouse of information and support for older adults in their area. They can assist or refer you for help with everything from lining up meals on wheels deliveries and transportation providers to mental health counselors.
- Hospice bereavement services: If grief seems to be the underlying issue, your family member might benefit from participating in a bereavement support group. Hospice organizations offer them for a variety of losses ranging from the death of a child to coping with a partner’s passing. You don’t have to have used hospice services to sign up for support either.
- Support for veterans: Service-related issues that have been left unaddressed for years can cause problems for veterans later in life. Should your senior loved one’s struggles be related to their military service, you might find the Veterans Crisis Line to be helpful.
- Volunteer opportunities: Retirees who feel isolated and alone might benefit from donating their time and talent to a nonprofit organization. The local United Way office might be able to connect you with some options. Another avenue to explore is AmeriCorps Seniors. They help adults over the age of 55 find volunteer projects they’ll enjoy and finding meaningful.
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