Depression affects more than 35 million adults each year. Of these, 6.5 million are over the age of 65. In the later years of a person’s life, changes occur that can lead to depression. These include medical illnesses, death of spouses or other loved ones and retirement. Depression prevents older adults from enjoying their lives like they did when they were younger. The effects of depression, however, extend far beyond changes in mood. Patients become less energetic, experience changes in sleep patterns, changes in their appetites and decline in physical health. However, depression is not always inevitable when it comes to aging. There are steps and strategies that older adults can focus on to overcome the symptoms of depression.
Causes of Depression in Older Adults
As people get older, their health typically begins to deteriorate. They may experience severe or chronic pain, become disabled or have surgeries or diseases that damage their bodies. These symptoms can cause a person to become depressed and feel useless.
Many elderly people live alone, usually due to the death of a spouse, have decreased mobility and no longer have driving privileges. These factors can contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Increased Sense of Purposelessness
When people reach retirement age or are physically challenged, they may feel a sense of purposelessness.
Anxiety over health issues or financial problems can cause one to become depressed. Additionally, as people get older, they become more afraid of death.
When people lose their spouses, friends or pets to death, they may become saddened; this can lead to depression. In this case, the bereaved might consider moving in with family members or friends.
Follow Doctors’ Orders
Once a patient is diagnosed with depression, it is important to follow the instructions given by the person’s health care provider. This may include taking medications such as antidepressants. The doctor may also instruct the patient to participate in regular psychotherapy sessions. It is important that the patient keeps the doctor informed of feelings, whether good or bad, and any side effects experienced due to the medication.
Get a Normal Amount of Sleep
Depression can affect sleep patterns by causing the patient to want to sleep all the time or to not sleep much at all. If the patient is having trouble doing so, the doctor can prescribe medications to either help the person fall asleep or to stay awake.
Physical activity has been proven to be a mood-booster, often as effective as antidepressants, but without the dreaded side effects. Doing light housework, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther away and short walks are great exercise techniques. There are also many safe exercises, such as arm rotations, for those who may be confined to a wheelchair.
Eating a lot of sugar and junk food can cause the body to experience crashes. Instead, patients should eat healthy foods that provide energy and nourishment. For those unable to cook for themselves, having a family member or friend prepare meals reduces the chance of eating unhealthy.
One of the most important things a patient can do to help themselves get better is to maintain healthy relationships with others. This eliminates feelings of loneliness and isolation. Loved ones also provide the support and encouragement needed to help the patient recover from depression. If the patient is physically unable to get around, inviting others over or keeping in touch via email or phone can be effective as well. Additionally, participating in support groups for depression can make patients feel as though they are not alone and can seek advice from others who share their pain.
How Family and Friends Can Help
It’s hard to watch loved ones who suffer from depression, especially if they are senior citizens. Knowing how to help them can play an important role in their recovery. Simply telling the person that “everything will be just fine” doesn’t help much. Family and friends can make a huge difference by offering emotional support.
If family members suspect their loved ones are depressed, they should encourage them to visit their doctors immediately for an evaluation; the sooner the condition is diagnosed, the quicker patients can begin treatment.
If a loved one is diagnosed with depression, encourage that person to follow the doctor’s orders. Accompany that person to doctor visits or psychotherapy sessions. Additionally, assisting in taking medications and monitoring dosages will give the family member relief knowing that the loved one is following the prescription correctly.
Offering affection and emotional support can help encourage an older person to continue seeking help. Additionally, always lending an ear and listening with understanding and positivity lets patients know they are not alone.
Sometimes, depression can cause talk of death or suicide. This should not be taken lightly. Inform a doctor immediately if this occurs. If a doctor is unavailable, accompany the person to an emergency room.
Encouraging activities and exercises can also be beneficial to the loved one. Inviting the loved one to accompany you to social events or family gatherings can give a sense of self-worth and the feeling of being wanted and needed.
Being understanding when the loved one speaks negatively is part of helping a person get through depression. This is common, and negativity will decrease as the condition gets better.
Encourage the loved one to get a pet for the sake of companionship when alone. Taking care of the animal can create a sense of purpose.
Planning and preparing a healthy meal for the loved one can help reduce stress and make them feel loved and cared for.
For more on the topic of Living with Depression in Older Adults, we’ve included the following expert consensus documents as reference materials: