Planning for the long-term care needs of an aging parent can be difficult. Many seniors are fearful of a future where they are unable to care for themselves and may resist having a candid discussion about potentially tough choices.
When a senior suffers from mental illness, those conversations can be especially challenging. Seniors who struggle with mental illness in addition to the normal physical and cognitive decline that occurs with aging may be unwilling to consider the kind of care that can effectively manage their complex health care needs. The stigma that continues to surround the subject of mental illness often makes it hard to even begin the conversation of how to seek out resources that can provide meaningful help.
For many seniors, independence and self-sufficiency are an integral part of their identity. For these individuals, seeking help for mental illness is more than difficult, it is an insult to everything they have believed about themselves and their place in the world. They associate mental illness with weakness or a flaw in character, rather than an illness that requires medical intervention. In these cases, it may be easier, to begin with, a discussion with his or her primary health care provider. By reaching out to a trusted family doctor, and focusing on symptoms rather than trying to self-diagnose, it may be possible for the physician to diagnose and initiate treatment by prescribing medication. In many cases, medication can alleviate symptoms enough to allow for a more candid conversation about the diagnosis and other treatment options.
It also may be helpful for adult children to seek out professional guidance and support for themselves as they seek to gain insight into their parent’s condition. By reaching out to a professional counselor for advice, caregivers can educate themselves about their loved one’s illness and learn strategies for coping with negative behavior. Likewise, a caregiver support group may provide an outlet for sharing concerns and identifying helpful resources. Sometimes the greatest support one can receive is from other individuals facing similar struggles.
Once family members have initiated efforts to address the mental health of the individual in question, there are a few important steps to keep in mind as you continue on the path toward recovery or at least stabilization:
Make sure your loved one is taking his or her medication. An individual who has stopped taking appropriate medication will likely not be receptive to treatment plans. Do your best to get them back on track with their drug regimen.
If you need to discuss treatment options, choose a time when you are both calm. It is natural to be inclined to put off difficult discussions until the last minute, but trying to address treatment plans or a medication regimen in the middle of a mental health meltdown will never be productive. Find a quiet moment and address the subject matter calmly.
Have a plan to de-escalate. Be prepared in case things get heated. Shift the conversation to something less threatening, and do not take push-back personally. Sometimes it may be appropriate to say, “Let’s talk about this later, when you are not so upset.” It is OK to step away and try again later.
Get paperwork in order so that you can act on your loved one’s behalf if necessary. Adult children of a senior with mental illness may want to get medical power of attorney so that if it becomes necessary, you can communicate freely with health care providers and help make important decisions. It is important to remember, however, that medical power of attorney alone does not permit you to make decisions that are in conflict with the patient’s wishes. It only allows you to exchange information with health care providers, and to make decisions should the patient be rendered unable to act on their own behalf.
Addressing issues regarding mental health can be challenging and uncomfortable, but delaying treatment can be dangerous, indeed. Untreated mental health issues can result in poorer physical health outcomes. People with untreated mental illness often experience longer hospital stays and increased health care costs; and are far more likely to be non-compliant when it comes to medication, diet and exercise. By effectively managing mental health concerns, you may be protecting the physical health of your loved ones, ensuring their continued independence and overall wellness for many years to come.