More than six million Americans over the age of 65 suffer from depression. One of the major factors for this is the loss of independence. For seniors living well on their own, rates of depression are quite low, but medical conditions and health issues that require seniors to curb the activities they once loved – such as hiking, driving, vacationing, etc. – often make them feel like they can no longer have a vibrant and enjoyable life. Another major risk factor for depression is isolation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 percent of people aged 65 and older lived alone in 2010. While living alone doesn’t necessarily lead to isolation, it can certainly be a factor.
Unfortunately, depression in the elderly is frequently undiagnosed, often because the person suffering from the disease doesn’t discuss it, seeing it as a sign of weakness. Symptoms of depression – exhaustion, lethargy, and loss of interest in daily activities – can be signs of other medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism, low blood sugar or even a Vitamin D deficiency.
So, if you suspect someone you care about is depressed, what can you do? Here are some tips:
As we age, we may slow down, become more susceptible to disease, and lose interest in things that once brought us joy. But you should never assume these things are simply part of growing older. Since many elders don’t want to be a burden to their loved ones, they won’t talk about what’s going on with them. Watch for subtle signs of distress, such as excessive wringing of hands or someone who is easily agitated or irritable. Let them know you are available to discuss their feelings and that you’re someone who will honor their emotions and provide support.
The good news is that depression is a treatable disease and seniors, as a group, typically respond well to treatment. Help your loved one find a doctor they’ll be comfortable with and go with them to the appointment. If they resist, don’t get angry and demand they seek treatment. Engage them in conversation and discover why they are resisting help.
There’s a fine line between showing concern and offering to do things for them that they are still able to do. Offering to drive them to the grocery store or cleaning their house may simply reinforce their perception that they are incapable, something that will only make their depression worse.
Exercise can improve depression – it has powerful mood-boosting effects. It can also improve other areas of one’s life, such as overall health, mobility, and an increased sense of well-being, which can help ease the symptoms of depression.
In our June newsletter, we talked about the importance for socialization to maintain our health and well-being. Isolation is a huge trigger for depression, so connecting your loved one to social activities and other seniors in the area can work wonders. Take them to a local senior center, or find an activity they enjoy and find a group that supports their passion. If they’re unable to get out due to a chronic medical condition, help them learn how to use the Internet for entertainment and connecting with others. A University of Exeter study concluded that adults age 60 and above who received computer equipment and training “had heightened feelings of self-competence, engaged more in social activity, had a stronger sense of personal identity, and showed improved cognitive capacity.”
A study by MetLife showed that, regardless of age, gender, financial status or life stage, a majority of people assign the most importance in life to activities that have meaning, and this feeling increases with age. The meaning can be very small – from collecting recyclables from everyone in the neighborhood or babysitting their grandkids every Friday night – to something more profound, like volunteering for a worthy cause. Give your loved one a reason for living and they’ll be less prone to depression.