Starting a conversation about mental health can be difficult, but these thoughtful conversations can give seniors an opportunity to express themselves, and can help to make sure that all possible matters of concern are sufficiently tended to.
When combined with all the other cognitive and physical changes and adjustments that seniors are dealing with as a part of older age, mental health problems, if left unaddressed, can have a significant and meaningful impact on seniors’ lives.
Opening A Dialogue
The common and overarching stigma associated with mental illness makes it difficult enough to feel comfortable disclosing mental health concerns, but seniors may be even more likely to withhold feelings and challenges with their mental state for fear of troubling or burdening families and caregivers, or because they may assume that the negative impacts of mental health problems are natural or unavoidable aspects aging. The fact that seniors are often inclined to avoid discussing their own mental health means that family members, friends, and caregivers need to be proactive about keeping track of changes in mood or behaviour, and need to start a dialogue to make sure seniors do not feel ashamed to discuss emotional challenges. Starting a conversation about mental health can be challenging, but talking to seniors openly with respect and understanding can be healing, productive, and meaningful for maintaining health.
Seniors may feel discouraged from seeking the professional assistance and support that they need to address troubling feelings and challenges because of the same barriers that prevent them from disclosing their difficulties to loved ones. Encouraging seniors to consult with their doctors, or with a therapist, to talk about mental health issues can be challenging, and might require that particular strategies be implemented to get them to seek support
- Doctors: When meeting with a doctor, some seniors are more comfortable approaching their mental health from the angle of the physical or tangible symptoms that their challenges are manifesting. This creates a starting point for the discussion from which more abstract concepts about mood and emotion can begin. Doctors can then make their assessments and advise accordingly on matters such as the appropriateness of medication or other interventions, or what the most effective treatment plan might be when considering comorbidities and other medications that are already a part of the senior’s life.
- Therapists: While the contemporary social setting is more accepting of the notion of seeking therapy for mental health problems or concerns, the generation from which today’s seniors come often viewed dependency on this form of treatment as a sign of weakness or as something to be ashamed of. It is for this reason, among others, that it can be difficult to encourage seniors to try this form of treatment. It can be beneficial to start by asking seniors to just try it once, without involving a long-term commitment with a therapist. This can often feel manageable enough to get them to give it a shot and, if all goes well, they won’t mind going back for future sessions. Some seniors may be more likely to try attending therapy if they are motivated by feeling they are doing it for their loved ones, rather than for themselves. Setting up these alternate forms of motivation can also be fruitful. Some seniors may be uncomfortable or reluctant to attend therapy by themselves because it feels unfamiliar. Having a close family member or friend go along with them to the first session can help seniors ease in, and can also give them someone to be accountable to.
While introducing discussions with seniors about their mental health can be emotional and uncomfortable, the possible consequences of leaving their mental health unaddressed are riskier than working through and facilitating the conversation. Mental health issues that remain untreated not only impact seniors’ mental health in a negative way, but have also been shown to result in poorer physical health outcomes when aspects of mental illness prevent seniors from effectively engaging in in health-promoting activities, such as taking medications, eating and sleeping well, remaining active, and engaging in general self-care.
Opening a conversation that makes seniors feel safe and comfortable talking about changes in their mental health, and looking for help to address concerns, can make a meaningful difference in the overall wellbeing experienced by seniors and, by extension, their loved ones. An incredible amount of resources are available online and within the communities of North and West Vancouver that can help with researching or understanding strategies to successfully approach, address, and improve seniors’ mental health.