Aging parents and mental health – can’t we do better?

By now, it is well known that the pandemic has adverse effects on mental health, especially for school-aged children. But officials note that isolated elders have also suffered tremendously. Our elders are the most vulnerable to Covid and have had to stay away from those they love because of the risk of life-threatening infection. Those who have experienced the worst of the pandemic, with risk that has not gone away even now, are still paying the price of being alone for so long.

Social isolation is a well-documented problem that is associated with poor health outcomes, premature death and an increased risk of dementia. We evolved into tribes and seem to be hard-wired to need connection and communication with others. It’s true that there are loners who don’t seem to need the company of others much, but that’s not most people. The resulting social isolation that was necessary to prevent the spread of a potentially fatal bout of Covid has taken its toll. Depression may be more common than ever. And aging parents may be reluctant to seek treatment for depression, as their generation seems to have a general bias against mental health treatment. They would say “I’m not crazy. I don’t need to see a therapist”. Or “I don’t believe in these things.” In short, they resist the idea that a therapist can help them.

Symptoms of depression

Depression manifests itself in many ways. In our own aging loved ones, we may see a loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities. They look sad. They don’t want to participate. We may see significant weight gain or loss and changes in eating habits. There may be sleep disturbances. Some who suffer from depression become irritable, angry, or withdraw from even simple conversations. For their families, this can be very frustrating. You see something is wrong, but you don’t know what to do about it.


One thing about mental health care has definitely changed during the pandemic. That is, health insurers have become more willing to pay for telemedicine. This includes psychological help. Previously, they were opposed to paying for anything other than in-person visits to a therapist. Insurers now reimburse telemedicine therapists for video therapy visits. This may help. However, a recurring problem is that the most experienced mental health providers are not paid by insurers at market rates, and some refuse to accept insurance at all. Some will not accept payment from Medicare. This means paying out of pocket for therapy. Some can afford it, some can’t.

Imagine you have an aging parent who seems apathetic and seems very depressed these days. You think your loved one is depressed. What can you say? What can you do?


When you approach some primary care physicians about depression in an aging parent, they are usually ready and willing to prescribe antidepressants. These medications can help control symptoms well, but they don’t get to the root causes of depression. To uncover them, a person needs a mental health provider to talk to about what’s going on. Antidepressants work best when combined with some regular visits to talk therapy.

How can you convince someone to see a therapist?

The most resilient people won’t go, even if you think they really need to. For others who may be on the fence, you can help by doing some research to find an experienced therapist who treats senior depression. Your aging parent’s primary care physician can be a good referral source. Most therapists will talk to a potential client on the phone before making an appointment to try to determine if they are a good fit. Different personalities and therapeutic styles matter. If you find a therapist who might work well with your aging loved one, you can describe what you like about the person to your senior and encourage them to give it a try. Finding the right therapist is not that easy. Doing your research before offering this can really help an adult who may have no idea where to start.


According to the American Psychological Association, about 75% of people who seek therapy derive some benefit from it. Those are good odds. When a person is depressed, they can feel hopeless and helpless. A good therapist can help turn this around for the better. If you think your aging parent is depressed, whether from pandemic-related isolation or not, consider that there is help available. Encourage him. Research to find the right person. This can greatly improve your loved one’s quality of life.

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