Home for the holidays? Here are a few ways to recognize signs of mental health decline

As comforting as it may be to go home for the holidays, it can also be jarring to notice changes in your aging parents or relatives, especially if you haven’t seen them in a while. But how can you tell if your loved one’s memory slips or mood shifts are part of healthy aging, increased holiday stress or a sign of mental health decline?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the top mental health issue among seniors is severe cognitive impairment or dementia, with an estimated 5 million adults over age 65 who have Alzheimer’s disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 5 percent of older adults deal with depression, while another 7.6 percent have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.  

“No one wants to go home for the holidays to discover that mom, dad or Aunt Matilda isn’t acting like their usual self,” says Ahmed Sherif Abdel Meguid, MD, who specializes in psychiatry and neuropsychiatry at Inova. “But aging presents more than a few potential triggers for mental health problems, including the loss of loved ones, moving into a new living environment, medication interactions or, a memory disorder or illness such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

Recognizing Signs of Mental Decline
Many people think dementia only means memory loss, or that depression is just another word for sadness. But these are far from the only symptoms of these common mental health problems in older adults. Some of the other, less visible, signs can be more subtle, Dr. Meguid says, and include:

  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Changes in appearance or dress
  • Problems keeping track of purse or wallet
  • Trouble handling finances or remembering appointments
  • Irritability, anger or aggression
  • Feelings of worthlessness or helplessness
  • Social withdrawal or loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed
  • Changes in energy or appetite

Steps to Cope
If you haven’t spent time with your parent or relative in many months, signs of mental decline may seem glaring. But that doesn’t mean your loved one would agree or even notice the symptoms themselves, Dr. Meguid says. “It’s common for people who are suffering from dementia, for instance, to be quite unaware of how sharply their skills may be sliding,” he explains.

It’s also important to understand that depression can sometimes be mistaken as dementia since someone with depression can seem forgetful or disoriented. Drug interactions or vitamin deficiencies can also trigger dementia-like symptoms. For all these reasons and more, consult a doctor to determine why your loved one’s mental health is deteriorating.

The stigma surrounding conditions, such as dementia or depression makes it harder to speak up and seek help. If you’re concerned about your relative, you may feel torn between worries about their well-being and fears of upsetting them. But it’s crucial to broach the subject with them, says Dr. Meguid Here’s how:

  • Plan one-on-one time. Whether you’re out for a bite to eat or doing something pleasant like shopping or walking, pick a time when you can be alone with your loved one without distraction. “Share your observations with love and tact and really listen to their response,” Dr. Meguid advises.
  • Offer your support. Tell your relative you’re there for them and, if desired and possible, offer to accompany them on doctor visits.
  • Point out the positives of seeking help. Explain how crucial getting an early and accurate diagnosis can be. “When you know what you’re dealing with, you can access the best possible treatments,” Dr. Meguid says. “In the case of dementia, your loved one also gets a chance to decide their priorities and what happens next.”

Inova Behavioral Health Services offers a full spectrum of mental health and substance use disorders inpatient and outpatient services for children, adolescents and adults to the surrounding Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., metropolitan community. Learn more about our programs and services

RELATED: Inova Behavioral Health Services Focus on Healthy Minds

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