As estate planning attorneys, it is difficult to see families struggling to interact with an elderly parent or other loved one whose personality has shifted dramatically in a relatively short period of time. Whereas the person used to be outgoing, warm, and friendly, now the same individual is irritable, secretive, and quick to anger. Sadly, some people assume the family member simply doesn’t want to see them anymore and break off contact as a result.
What many people fail to realize is that sudden personality shifts can be a sign of serious mental health distress. Learning to recognize the signs of deteriorating mental health can help you address your loved one’s needs early, which can potentially minimize dangers to their safety and well-being. It can also help you take care of critical estate planning issues before the person becomes incapacitated.
Most people don’t like to confront the possibility of no longer being able to look after their own finances and personal matters. If you delay planning your estate, however, you risk leaving your financial concerns and health care decisions in the hands of the court. The following are among the most common forms of mental health problems in older adults.
Dementia takes many forms, although Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Dementia can also be accompanied by other symptoms, such as depression, delusions, and delirium. Early signs of dementia include memory loss, difficulty with speech (such as struggling to find a common word), inability to plan, and poor motor function. Dementia is sometimes overlooked when adult children and caregivers naturally step in to offer assistance to an aging family member. Thus, the senior’s difficulties go unnoticed by others who might not spend as much time around the person.
It’s also important to be aware that Alzheimer’s disease is not limited to the elderly. The Alzheimer’s Associations reports that up to five percent of individuals with the disease are in their 40s or 50s.
Delirium is usually induced by medication or a reaction to anesthesia used during a surgical procedure. It can be subtle, making it easy to miss. Many health professionals mistake it for dementia because they assume an elderly patient is just confused. If you notice your loved one struggling with an inability to focus his or her attention on a task or experiencing hallucinations or paranoia, medication might be the culprit. Fortunately, medication-induced delirium is usually reversible, but catching it early is key to your loved one making a full recovery.
Depression is a largely silent mental health epidemic among our nation’s elderly population, with women more likely to suffer from it. According to WebMD, late-life depression affects 6 million Americans over the age of 65. In some cases, depression can cause a person to make poor decisions or experience rapidly declining health.
Older generations who were raised not to speak of mental health concerns are often reluctant to seek help for depression. You can help increase the chances of your loved one getting necessary treatment by maintaining an ongoing dialogue about his or her feelings and daily attitude. If you sense your loved one withdrawing, don’t wait to address it.