Helping an Elderly Mother That’s Never Happy

Your mother cared for you when you were a child and did just about everything she could to make your life happy. Now, as you find your caretaking roles reversing as you both age, you likely want to pay her back for all those wonderful memories you have.

However, what happens when your mom seems to simply never be happy? As your mother’s child, you have likely done as much as you can to perk up her spirits. If you’ve noticed that despite all your efforts, your elderly mother never seems to be happy, you’re not alone.

Mild unhappiness and more severe forms of sadness (such as depression) are unfortunately common in older adult populations. By identifying the root cause of your mother’s emotions, you can support her in her path to a happier life.

Causes of Unhappiness

Your mother’s unhappiness may manifest in many ways. She might seem less interested in doing things she used to love, like visiting with you or other family members and friends. Perhaps she doesn’t seem like she has much of an appetite. Her temper may seem shorter than normal, and she could seem a bit more irritable than you’re used to seeing her.

Finding the root cause of the issue is key. While there may be several problems that have resulted in your mother’s unhappiness, addressing each specific issue can help minimize the group of symptoms. In some cases, your mother’s unhappiness may easily be resolved by supporting her with a particular issue, like feeling upset about a minor event that occurred recently.

In more extreme cases, your mother may be experiencing clinical depression or another major mental health issue that will need a doctor’s intervention.

Consider this list of reasons your mother could be experiencing unhappiness:

  • Loneliness: Has your mother’s partner or a beloved pet passed away in the past few months? Have her family and friends’ schedules been especially busy lately, leading to fewer visits and social outings? Seniors are more at risk for isolation, but it’s just as important that they maintain an active social life.
  • Pain from a medical condition: If there’s one sure way to feel out of sorts, it’s when you’re in pain. Some people are not comfortable sharing their feelings of pain with others. Your mother may be experiencing pain that she doesn’t want to mention for fear of worrying you or seeming like she’s complaining. Some conditions, like arthritis, aren’t easy to notice outwardly, so your mother may be dealing with a medical issue you’re not aware of. She may not even be aware that she has a medical problem. Other issues, like chronic migraines, are also ones that can be difficult for observers to identify.
  • Symptoms of a medical condition: Sometimes, a medical issue doesn’t cause pain. Some neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease can alter a person’s personality, which could cause her to appear more aggressive or unhappy than she typically is. Other health conditions that can lead to depression include bipolar disorder. Mental health problems like major depressive disorder and dysthymia are also causes of depression among adults.
  • Boredom: Another reason your mother could be unhappy is boredom. Sometimes, we find ourselves simply tired of the same old routine. When people retire, they sometimes experience boredom due to large amounts of free time. While most of us spend our employment years looking forward to retirement, an unstructured schedule isn’t necessarily the best for our moods. Not having a sense of purpose can lead to feelings of uncertainty and sadness.
  • Change in environment. Has your mother recently moved to an assisted living home? Perhaps she’s now living with a family member because she’s no longer able to care for herself? A change in her home environment could cause a shift in her mood. She may feel like she is inconveniencing you and others, or she may not yet be comfortable in her new environment.

Depression

If you suspect your mother may be suffering from more than your average “blues,” you might want to suggest that she be assessed by a physician for depression. Depression in adults isn’t uncommon, and it’s more likely to occur in people who have chronic health problems. In fact, because 80% of older adults have a chronic health issue, their age group is at an increased risk for depression.

Signs of depression in seniors include:

  • Lack of interest in doing things one normally enjoys
  • Fatigue
  • Sleeping disturbances
  • Changes in eating (overeating or eating too little)
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Concentration issues

Depression can even manifest as physical symptoms like aches (including headaches) and digestive issues. Your mother’s doctor will make a diagnosis if they determine your mother’s symptoms meet the criteria for the disorder, including exhibiting five symptoms over the course of two weeks.

Your mother’s physician will likely also want to perform a physical exam on her, including running lab work, to determine if her depression is caused by a medical problem. If a physical medical problem is determined, the physician will advise accordingly. Alternatively, your mother may be recommended for certain treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, or counseling. Medication may be recommended, as well.

Going to the initial doctor appointment may seem like a daunting task to your mother. Offer to go with her and let her know you’ll be with her as long as she wants you to. Some people can feel shy about seeking mental health care due to social stigma, so communicate with her that you’re supportive of her seeking the medical care that she needs.

Ways to Support Your Mother

If your mother is diagnosed with depression, there are several ways that you and other members of your family can support her:

  • Encourage her to stick to her medical plan. Offer support like taking her to therapy and other appointments. You can help remind her to take medications the doctor has prescribed. You can also help her schedule her upcoming appointments and transfer them to her calendar.
  • Provide her with resources. Give her the number to your local emergency department as well as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255); TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889).
  • Help your mother get enough sleep. Getting adequate sleep can help improve mental health. Surprise your mom with new slippers, herbal teas, a cozy throw blanket, and other gifts that can help her sleep more comfortably. Consider helping her pick out a new mattress or mattress topper or bright new pillows.
  • Support your mom with social activities. If your mother doesn’t drive, offer to drive her to social events. Alternatively, you can offer to give her friends rides to see her. Help your mom find activities to participate in at local community centers. Even if your mother can cook for herself, she may benefit from a program like Meals on Wheels, as a volunteer will come each day to her home with a nutritious meal.
  • Check in with her often. Set aside time to call your mom for a daily check-in. Set up her phone or computer so that you two can have a video chat over Zoom or Skype. Encourage family members to schedule visits to her home more often.
  • Let your mom know you care. Verbally tell your mother that you are there for her. While you’re likely showing your love for your mom in dozens of ways, telling your mom you care about her can go a long way.
  • Ask your mom about getting a pet. If your mother is able to care for a pet, consider helping her adopt a cat or small dog. Animals can be a source of comfort for people experiencing loneliness, and they can provide a sense of purpose.
  • Encourage her to get out in the community. Seniors can become isolated at home. Encourage your mom to meet members of the community around her. Introduce her to the neighbors if she hasn’t met them already. She may also be interested in volunteering, such as cooking food or sewing clothes for people in need.
  • Ask her how you can help. Often, one of the best ways to help someone is to just ask what they need. Ask your mom what you can do to help her feel better. Does she just need someone to listen to her? Does she want a friend? Being a listening ear can mean a lot.
  • Exercise with her. Exercise is a great way to boost your mood. Depending on your mother’s physical abilities, you can join her in a number of activities like chair yoga, water aerobics, or even simple walks around the block. If your mom has to spend most of her time in bed, there are even several online resources for senior exercises that can be done in bed.

Conclusion

It’s not uncommon to notice your elderly mother seems to be unhappy a lot of the time. In some cases, the cause of her distress may have an immediate solution. In other cases, she may be experiencing a form of depression, which is a serious condition that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. It’s always a good idea to consult with a doctor to rule out depression if your mother has started experiencing significant changes in her mood or personality.

Sources:

  1. Depression and Older Adults, National Institute on Aging, www.nia.nih.gov
  2. Depression is Not a Normal Part of Growing Older, CDC, www.cdc.gov

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