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Why Your Parents' Mental Health May Be at Risk

Your mom and dad may not have a history of mental health problems, but with all the physiological and life changes they experience as they age, they may indeed need the benefit of psychological services. Here are some of the more common factors that will tax your parents' mental health.

Changes in Sleep Patterns

Between 30 to 50 percent of the elderly experience chronic problems with sleep disturbance. We all know that wiped-out feeling we get from pulling an all-nighter. So you can imagine what this does to your mom or dad. In Aging: Everybody's Doing It we went over the sleep changes that your parents can normally expect and how to get a good night's sleep. But if Dad is clearly having problems sleeping, causing him to be irritable and fatigued throughout the day, he should see a doctor. Sleep deprivation is a known contributor to depression. Problems of getting a good night's sleep can also be a symptom of a host of medical problems. So heed the warning.


Pills might solve one problem but they can contribute to depression. Sleep medications (hypnotics) often list depression as a possible side effect. Pills for arthritis, ulcers, heart problems, and high blood pressure can also contribute to depression. Be sure to read the fine print about various side effects of medications that your parent takes. If your parent is acting depressed and depression is listed as part of the drug manufacturer's warning, advise your parent's prescribing doctor of your mom's change in behavior.


Roosevelt said it best: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The trouble is, your parents might have quite a few fears quietly eating away at them. Fears of having a catastrophic illness like a stroke, of being placed in a nursing home, of losing all of their life savings, of being abandoned, of being a burden to you, of you taking them out of their home and having them live with you, of dying … all take their toll on mental health. While most people have some level of fear in these areas, it's how they cope with the fear and measure it against reality that makes the difference between a healthy adjustment to aging and one that's in trouble.

These fears can also get in the way of telling you the truth about physical problems. A dear friend of mine in her 80s has yet to tell her son that she fell in the bathroom, cutting her head. She doesn't know how long she lay unconscious from the fall. It did propel her, however, to decide it was time for assisted living. But she feared if she told her son, he would have immediately intervened insisting she sell the house and move in with him.

Senior Alert

You might be surprised at the role television plays in your parents' fears. Many seniors spend a great deal of time watching daytime television and CNN. With the likes of talk show hosts Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones exposing the unraveling of civil society, along with events like school shootings on CNN, older people may see the world as a very frightening place, especially if they are relatively homebound and television becomes the prism from which they view the world.

Multiple Losses

There are some gains in aging: Respect in one's community and profession, wisdom, freedom from responsibilities, and the joys of grandparenting are a few. But there are also many losses: The loss of a job for many men can mean a loss of self-esteem and the network of friends from the office. Women also experience this loss; however, they seem to have a greater network of friends to more easily make the transition from work to retirement. If your dad's whole identity was his work, he might find retirement a disaster, feeling like he isn't capable of anything, isn't important, and life has no meaning. Loss of income and living on a restricted income can be interpreted as a loss of power. To exert a sense of power, your dad may adamantly insist on picking up the tab for dinner even though he can't afford it. Loss of strength -- loudly proclaimed by the need for a cane, a hearing aid, a wheel chair, and/or glasses -- is always a hit on one's ego.

Hearing loss can also cause your dad to become isolated, angry, and irritable at not understanding people, and even a bit paranoid that people are quietly talking about him. And then, of course, there's the loss of what our youth-adoring culture views as attractive: Rather than view gray hairs and wrinkles as something we've earned, we do everything to hide or remove them. If your mom or dad has a number of these losses hitting at the same time or in fast succession, don't assume they'll naturally get through it like they always have.

More on: Aging Parents


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents © 2001 by Linda Colvin Rhodes, Ed.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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