06/12/2009 - Questions and Answers

How to help my aging parent with depression and short term memory loss ?

By: Novoviva webmaster



My 85 year old mother remains very depressed after my father's death 2&1/2 years ago. She lives alone and has quite good physical health, her high blood pressure being under good control, but her short term memory is failing.

We, her family wish her to see her doctor for advice, but she is adamant that this is not necessary. I know she will rebel about keeping any appointment we make so how can we best approach this problem? as we all care very much for our mother and realise she could be happier.


We do indeed appreciate your concerns but it is important to know that there is actually no 'best approach' to gaining your mother's cooperation regarding seeing her physician. There are several factors involved. Your approach will depend to some degree on how you and your mother relate to one another. Something as simple as including your mother in any discussions and plans made, and showing interest and understanding in her input could maybe work wonders, remembering not to take any negative reaction personally.

Also, the fact that your mother is still depressed after your father's death will not be helping. Depression is part of grieving, and your mother may well feel lonely and afraid, even whilst being "very independent". Her short term memory problem could well be associated with her depression, rather than a possible onset of dementia. It is very important to realize that sometimes older people have emotional problems that can be mistaken for dementia. Feeling sad, lonely, worried, or bored may be more common for older people coping with the death of a spouse, relative, or friend, or facing fear of changed living conditions. Adapting to these changes leaves some people feeling confused or forgetful. Emotional problems can be eased by supportive friends and family, or if necessary, by professional help from a doctor or counselor.

The information and advice we share with you here will hopefully be valuable, and you will see the link from our website below which provides further reading."Understanding developmental conflicts of old age is one thing; using communication techniques in live settings is something else. Be aware that, according to behavioral psychologists such as B.F. Skinner, a behavior we are trying to extinguish may actually intensify in response to initial intervention. That is, the behavior, attitude, or assumption we are trying to change can actually get worse before it gets better, if it improves at all. Our first efforts at communication, rather than providing the soothing interaction we anticipated, may prove provocative. How should we respond if our efforts blow up in our face?

1) Back off and re-examine. We need to view our efforts as objectively as possible. Did we present the idea in a rushed way? Did we withhold key information that might be relevant? - 2) Return to a more neutral position than we initially took, or drop the subject entirely. Realize that the elderly person may have been in a different mental orbit and not ready to absorb new information .- 3) Don't take a negative reaction personally. We may need to figure out an alternate strategy to get our point across. - 4) Redraft the plan. Don't try to rehammer the same points that backfired the first time around. If a communication issue is important enough, we need to reframe it in different language or at a less hectic pace than we originally did. If the elderly person still isn't receptive, drop it. - 5) Keep our goal in mind. Were certain words, topics, or assumptions more provocative than we'd anticipated? Select other options and see if they get a better reaction. - 6) Look at the timing. Were we in a bad mental or physical place when the subject was mentioned? Try a different venue or another time and see if the response is better. In many instances we try to get something accomplished and don't realize the setting is just not appropriate. For example, bringing up medication issues at a family celebration might seem to us to be a supportive way to do it, but might draw fire rather than appreciation from the elderly person to whom the comments are directed. - 7) Be sure to prepare for the encounter. Doing our homework allows us to create a nonlinear environment in which a conversation can work. Presenting unpleasant or undesirable choices in the heat of battle or in the midst of a life-changing decision is often counterproductive".

This information about grieving may also be of help. Loss of a loved one can cause depression, and depression is a part of grieving. Grief is an inevitable, universal experience. So much of life is about loss. But whilst grief is the 'normal' emotional response to loss, there is no 'normal' reaction to grief as it is personal and therefore different for each person. The stages of grief are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, and Hope for the future. On average it takes 18-24 months to go through all of these stages, though sometimes, depending on the person or circumstance, it can take much longer.

Related Links
When Communication Experiences a Setback
Understanding your Emotions - Know about Grieving (Part 1)
Understanding your Emotions - Know about Grieving (Part 2)
Good Grief center for Bereavement Support

Created on: 12/12/2006
Reviewed on: 06/12/2009

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