Teach Me

Watch for These Early Warning Signs of Mental Illness in Seniors

Your mother has always been a worrier, but it seems like she’s anxious about everything these days. Your dad says he’s not sleeping well. When you question your parents’ early glass of wine, you get a wink and a reply: “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere!”

How can you tell if the changes you’re spotting in your parents are early signs of mental illness? You might not expect depression or other common mental illnesses to show up in your older family members, so you may not think to watch for these signs. According to Ganesh Gopalakrishna, MD, associate clinical director of the Stead Family Memory Clinic at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, AZ, “Mental illness can present in various ways in the elderly.”

Dr. Gopalakrishna also said you might assume that if your parent is sad or lonely, they could be dealing with social changes, like retirement or losing a spouse. But those feelings could be early signs of mental illness.

Pay attention to these changes that could signal mental illness

Spotting the early signs of mental illness can be tough. Here are some warning signs that deserve your attention:

  • Feeling sad for days
  • Keeping to themselves
  • Poor sleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Poor hygiene
  • Neglecting their home
  • Confusion
  • Trouble completing daily tasks and chores
  • Fatigue
  • Lethargy
  • Aches
  • False beliefs
  • Hallucinations

These signs could point to anxiety, depression, dementia, mood disorders or another type of mental illness, Dr. Gopalakrishna said. You’ll want to keep a close eye on the behaviors of seniors who have a history of mental illness, since these conditions can recur or worsen as they get older.

Also, some seniors turn to substance misuse to cope with mental illness, so watch for signs of excessive alcohol use, illicit drug use, or misuse of prescription drugs.

What to do if you’re worried about mom or dad

Your parent’s primary care physician can check for signs of mental illness and can often diagnose and treat these conditions. “If you or your loved one is experiencing any concerning symptoms, your first contact can be your family doctor,” Dr. Gopalakrishna said. “You could also seek out mental health experts like psychologists, counsellors, or psychiatrists through your insurance provider or via referral from your family doctor.”

If possible, accompany your parent to their doctors’ appointments, or ask them to give you permission to talk to their doctors.

The bottom line

Don’t be caught off guard if you spot signs of mental illness in your parents or older relatives. “Late life mental illnesses are common,” Dr. Gopalakrishna said. The good news? These conditions can often be treated with medications and/or counselling. By watching for early signs and seeking care, you can help your loved one heal.

If you need to connect with a mental health expert, Banner Health can help. Visit bannerhealth.com for a referral to a healthcare provider near you.

Caring for your parents as they age isn’t easy. For more helpful resources, check out:

Alzheimers Disease and Dementia Anxiety Behavioral Health Depression Senior Health