How to Help an Aging Parent with Depression

GoodTherapy | How to Help an Aging Parent with DepressionAs the human lifespan grows, many people are now living well into their eighties and nineties. That’s wonderful news, but it comes with new challenges. One of them is the challenge of addressing mental health issues in our aging parents.

Depression is frequent among older adults. The rate of depression in persons over age 65 varies depending on the person’s overall health and living situation, but it can be as high as about 27% (, 2015).

What Causes Aging-Related Depression?

Several factors can contribute to depression in older adults, including:

  • Preexisting depression: If you have a parent who has struggled with depression at different points in his or her life, it is more likely to recur as he or she ages. People with untreated depression in the past might have poor life coping skills and a tendency toward negative thinking. As they face the challenges of aging, it may be more difficult to maintain a positive outlook.
  • Preexisting anxiety: Individuals with a history of anxiety often become more fearful as they age. (Many individuals become fearful as they age, but this tends to be more pronounced in those with a history of anxiety and worry.) As a result, they often isolate. They don’t go out often and rarely make new friends or participate in social activities. This can lead to depression.
  • Difficulty with life review: One of the tasks of healthy aging is to review one’s life, feel proud of the positive contributions, forgive oneself for mistakes, and let go of resentments toward others. Some people have difficulty reviewing their lives. They may get stuck on one or more aspects and dwell. For example, someone may feel he or she did not accomplish enough or continue to hold anger and resentment toward a sibling. All that unfinished business becomes emotionally toxic and may block the person’s ability to feel joyful and at peace.
  • Friends and family dying: There was a two-year period in the life of my in-laws (who are in their late eighties) where every time I spoke to them on the phone, they had a death to talk about. This is a unique reality of aging: your friends start to die, one by one. There isn’t always time to properly grieve, and it can lead to feelings that the world is not a happy place anymore. In addition, the death of a spouse or partner is often a huge emotional shock that can lead to overwhelming sadness and confusion. Many older adults wonder what will happen to them without their spouse or partner. The fear and sadness can amplify each other.
  • Declining abilities: It’s both frustrating and frightening to realize that you are no longer able to do the things you once did. It’s also a reminder that the end of life is nearer. Many people react to that by clinging to independence rather than by asking for or accepting help. In some cases, declining abilities can lead to isolation, a sense of being useless, and feelings of depression.

For many aging adults, the world can seem like an increasingly confusing place. There are always new technologies and new ways of doing things. Feeling unsure of themselves, older adults may become stubborn and cling to the things they know and are more comfortable with. Keep in mind that for many in this generation, psychotherapy and mental health treatment may not be seen in a positive light, having been stigmatized throughout their lives. Thus, suggesting therapy may seem extreme or even insulting to an aging person, even if he or she would clearly benefit.

How to Support a Depressed Parent

  1. Respect his or her need for independence, and don’t try to take control.
  2. Offer love and support; just letting him or her know you care and are available is enough. For many people (young and older), admitting that they are depressed is difficult.
  3. Delicately suggest one or two visits with a therapist who is experienced in geriatric issues, then leave it up to your parent whether to continue.
  4. Talk about a friend or someone you know who experienced a time of depression and then recovered. Gently suggest that perhaps it is similarly possible for your parent to improve his or her mood and sense of happiness.
  5. Learn active listening and empathy skills and become a good listener, without judgment or advice.

Is Medication a Good Option?

Sometimes, medication can be a good option for older persons, and sometimes it can make things worse by affecting cognitive function. It’s important to get a thorough evaluation by a qualified mental health professional who is trained in a variety of treatment approaches.

Watching an aging parent give up and not take good care of himself or herself can be heartbreaking and frustrating. It’s natural to want to insist that your parent get help, but being overly pushy can make things worse. A gentle approach that respects your parent as a competent adult is often the best bet.


Gellis, Z. D., & McCracken, S. G. (2015). Mental Health and Older Adults – Chapter 3: Depressive Disorders in Older Adults. Council on Social Work Education. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Chantal Marie Gagnon, PhD, LMHC, Postpartum Depression Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • barbara

    October 20th, 2015 at 7:07 AM

    It is only natural for me want to take over everything because 1 I am a pretty controlling person and I know that about myself, and 2 I am an RN so I know that that tendency to take charge is just going to be there. Can’t say that it makes everyone around me necessarily happy, but I do think that they know that they are in good hands when I do take over.

  • Bessie L

    October 20th, 2015 at 2:41 PM

    There are times when you have to put yourself in their shoes. Understand that many times this whole aging this is going to be hard on anyone and especially for someone who is so used to doing for themselves and now having to turn much of that over to another person. You lose your strength and your independence all at the same time. I just encourage any of us to think about how we would feel if those things were suddenly taken away from us. That is how aging parents feel too.

  • Sela

    October 20th, 2015 at 4:28 PM

    I think that there is this tendency to want to brush this off, to not be concerned about it. But depression is real and it can be debilitating no matter how old you are. I sometimes think that it can be even harder on older people mainly because they have fewer family members around all the time and they have lost so many people in their lives by this time. Just remember to keep an eye on them just like you would anyone who was experiencing this, and there are care givers out there who specialize in this sort of thing and who can help them resolve some of this pain that they are probably feeling.

  • deb

    October 21st, 2015 at 3:54 AM

    I feel like most older people try to hide their feelings and emotions because they already in some cases feel like they are being a burden on the family so they would never want to add to that by telling you that they are depressed. This will mean that you have to be even more in tune to their thoughts and actions so that you can get them some help for this that they may be too ashamed or afraid to ask for help for.

  • MartinW

    October 21st, 2015 at 7:32 AM

    sometimes they just need someone to listen to them, same as the rest of us

  • Dale

    October 21st, 2015 at 4:06 PM

    Well there are days when things are depressing for you. Do you know how many of my friends that I lost this year alone? It feels terrible sometimes.

  • tate

    October 22nd, 2015 at 7:48 AM

    I look at my grandmother right now and it is hard for all of us to think about how she has gone so far downhill in such a short amount of time. She was always so bright and vibrant and now there are very few things that she can still do be herself. I know that it is hard for us, but wow, it must be so sad for her to know what she used to be capable of and that now she needs help with.

  • Charleen

    October 23rd, 2015 at 10:39 AM

    Have any of us stopped for a moment and actually asked them what they need for us to do to help them?

  • lewis t

    October 24th, 2015 at 6:49 AM

    MY mom is going through this very thing right now but she refuses to see that there could be anything wrong. She thinks that feeling this way is normal, and I have tried to talk to her to tell her that to some extent we all get down form time to time but when it lasts for this long there ought to be this need to get help. I am not sure that she sees that at all. Since losing my step dad she thinks that she has to be sad all the time and I am fearful that if it lasts for much longer I will be burying her soon too.

  • ThenjiweM

    October 26th, 2015 at 12:07 AM

    This article has definitely struck a cord with me. I am guilty of being controlling, wanting to give advise and not really listening with no judgment. Its so frustrating when a parent is happy in their isolation, although my Mom has never been a social butterfly, but I feel that she is still too young to just sit at home and watch movies all day. Unfortunately though, this is what she wants and she is not at all interested in socializing with anyone. It takes some getting used to, to realize that your Mom is no longer that fierce, strong, resilient person that she was when you were younger. Just like with a lot of things in life, she also requires my patience I guess.

  • Jo

    October 26th, 2015 at 7:28 AM

    What scares me is that you know that there are certain medications that could interact with one another and cause abnormal behavior and thoughts. I wish that more people would talk about the crisis of over medicating that is going on, especially in older patients, and that we could be more aware of what these interactions can actually do to someone. I have heard of people experiencing mood changes, hallucinations, really insane sort of stuff and it would all stem form the interactions that certain drugs were causing. It leaves you feeling like you constantly have to check up behind providers because who knows if they are always paying attention to what a patient’s other providers are prescribing someone.

  • cyizre

    October 26th, 2015 at 5:12 PM

    It’s awesome to pay a visit this site and reading the views of all friends regarding this
    piece of writing, while I am also keen of getting familiarity.

  • Sadie

    October 27th, 2015 at 10:23 AM

    I would love some input into how you really know if this is real clinical depression or is it the culmination of all of the other things that go on in life that have led to this? I know that if I felt that loss of independence along with the loss of people in my life that mean a lot to me, then yes, I would be down and depressed too. But how do you know when it is something more than that, something medical that needs to be paid attention to?

  • Kelly C.

    March 14th, 2018 at 4:59 AM

    Common feelings of loss and frustration as well as sadness are relatively temporary. You may feel tired, sad or angry and it does not effect your day to day life. Depression in elderly adults that effects their day to day activities, causes them to change daily habits be it sleeping, eating, exercise or isolating from family and friends is a sign of something much deeper and something that requires attention from caregivers and perhaps psychiatric evaluation. It is very important not to wish these symptoms away or try to trivialize the persons mood or symptoms. This may not be something they can just get over. They wont simply cheer up. Instead of offering quick fixes for their feelings listening to them asking them how they are feeling with out needing to cure them or underestimate the power of those feelings definitely helps.

  • Annie

    November 4th, 2015 at 6:04 AM

    Offering love and care is the greatest gift we can give to aging parents to recover them from depression.This article gives tips to support depressed parents.Thank you for a great article.

  • Caroline

    May 16th, 2018 at 12:19 PM

    My mother has been depressed her whole life, largely because my father and her did not enjoy a good relationship, although they stayed married until he died a few months ago. Now with him gone, she’s utterly lost and her pre-existing depression intermingled with grief is making it hard for her to function. I have taken on all the responsibilities that my father once took care of, running the household and absorbing all of her general negativity. If I sound bitter it’s because … I am, a little. I love my mother deeply but I left home quite young because of her abusive tendencies. Now she is in her seventies and so vulnerable, I feel like I have to take care of her, especially while she adjusts to life without my father. It feels like taking care of a really moody angry teenager, and no matter what I try and do for her, it’s never ever good enough. She’s isolating from the few friends she has, relying on me for everything and I am totally overwhlemed with her talk of suicide and anger all day long, alongside her feelings of guilt and regret about the way she treated my father. And yet, she now treats me exactly the same way she treated him–with zero respect. I’ve talked to my GP abut getting counselling because I’ve committed to spending the next six months at home with her, taking care of her, and I may develop an illness of my own if I don’t get some help! Life sucks.

  • steph

    March 8th, 2019 at 12:24 AM

    Im sorry to read your story, I hope you have found some help for you.

  • Hannah

    June 5th, 2018 at 7:20 PM

    Thank you for the article. It really helped.

  • Rob

    April 7th, 2020 at 11:12 AM

    Wanted to leave a comment for new readers. One major issue here that prevents younger generations from “just asking” their parents what they need is the changing dynamic between parent and child to parent and caregiver. When you become a caregiver, often it removes the ability to be in the role of family member. This is why it’s so beneficial to have third parties like a therapist.

  • Rachel

    August 17th, 2020 at 4:48 AM

    Dear Caroline, I really feel for you.
    My mother has been bipolar/personality disorder all her life and started becoming more depressed in her 50s. I moved her in with me when she turned 70 and it’s been a terrible rollercoaster of anger, abuse, depression. I too have a moody teenager, who is now in denial about her health issues and though we make notes about doctor comments and appointments, she thinks I have made it all up. I have found talking to a wide range of people helpful, and for different reasons. Some therapy can be helpful to find a way through this, friends for sympathy and to say, wow, that is tough, to remind you that what you are doing is tough. Keep going, doing the right thing, and stay safe, both of you. Remember to give your self breaks so you can handle the downtime and be selfish about walking away when you need to as it’s easy to get dragged down x

  • Ahmad

    February 28th, 2021 at 5:26 AM

    The article is great. Theoritcally، but like me. This can’t be applicable. My mom is having a negative loop that pulls me in, and damaged a massive part of my life because of her bad views of the world. I understand why she is like this, but she is convinced she is fine this way because she is religious. She is controlling and negative, and unconsciously feeding on my positive emotions. Again , I love her , but she gave me panic attacks and depression that I chose not to talk tomorrow her at all while recovering. Now I have some abundance, I want to get a practical way to help , but all the doors I’m aware of are closed.

  • Liza

    August 20th, 2021 at 10:24 PM

    Difficulty with life review is what my Mom’s problem. She dwell upon some past events and the day she remember that start saying all sad and negative things and connect other events with that one incident. More over, she get upset very easily for everyday’s activity every now and then. It become sometimes difficult for me to resolve her mood.

  • Jennifer

    November 4th, 2021 at 9:34 AM

    This is such a difficult subject to address with seniors. We certainly don’t want to try to parent our aging parents, but at the same time, senior depression can be so dangerous and needs to be taken seriously. This article provides some additional helpful tips in recognizing and responding to senior depression in a loved one: advanced-homehealthcare-know-the-warning-signs-of-senior-depression

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