May 19, 2023
Imagine the following scenario: your 70-year-old father is a big proponent of growing your own food. He proudly shares pictures online of the produce he picked in his backyard garden. Furthermore, even though he retired from the job he performed for decades, he still meets his old work colleagues occassionally to play chess.
Now, imagine that all of a sudden, he doesn’t like gardening anymore, and he doesn’t see his friends. Ask him why, and he may tell you there’s no point in it, or that he’s too tired—
“I’m just getting old.”
Truth be told, these changes in behavior could be signs of depression.
Depression is a serious and pervasive disease, affecting over 280 million people around the world, out of which, over 14 million are elderly individuals.
Contrary to popular belief, growing old does not, in itself, cause depression or other mental health illnesses. Unfortunately, it often goes undiagnosed and untreated in older adults, leading to a decline in their overall health and quality of life.
So, what can you do when you have a depressed elderly parent? In this article, we'll discuss how to recognize the symptoms of depression in older adults and provide the assistance they need to cope with this condition.
Here are some of the most common symptoms that you should notice in your elderly loved one if they are facing depression:
Negative feelings combined with an inability to regulate them properly can make someone fall into a downward spiral of damaging behavior. It shouldn’t be left untreated.
But what causes depression?
Depression is a result of a complex interaction of genetic, biological, socioeconomic, and psychological factors.
Throughout our lives, we may or may not benefit from protective factors and privileges that promote good mental health and general well-being. Without enough support and awareness, we are exposed to stress, anxiety, and mental illness, which can take over at any point. This is what neuroscientist Daniel Levitin expresses in the illustration above, with respect to “the triad of genes, culture, and opportunity.”
Elderly individuals are more vulnerable to depression due to factors like chronic illness, physical disability, social isolation, and grief. Major life changes can also cause depression — for example, around 40% of nursing home residents suffer from it.
It's important to note that this is a treatable illness, and it's never too late to ask for help.
Many times, in an attempt to display a stoic attitude to protect us, our parents and grandparents don’t open up about their emotional struggles. Or they may blame their symptoms on lack of sleep or other inconveniences.
They may also avoid talking about their feelings to avoid the mental health stigma that is still present among the older generations. Remember that they were brought up in a time when depression was seen as a weakness that they needed to overcome by themselves.
Sometimes, a bit of diplomacy and strategy is needed to provide adequate help. For example, as Virginia Morris suggests in her book, “How to Care for Aging Parents,” you don’t need to use the word “depression” at first. Just say you’re there for them and want to help them overcome “whatever they’re going through.”
So let’s go over the most effective ways to prevent and treat depression. Please note these are general recommendations, and it’s best to work with your loved one’s primary care doctor to choose the best solution(s).
Depression is what doctors call “a diagnosis of exclusion.” This implies that your loved one first has to do a series of tests, like blood work and hormone checks. Their fatigue or insomnia could be due to a vitamin deficiency, a thyroid issue, a type of medicine, or alcohol, for example.
If their depression is mild, some lifestyle changes could be all they need to get better.
For one, consider a part-time job they could enjoy. It might sound like capitalist propaganda, but there are benefits to working past the retirement age. Besides staving off loneliness, doing meaningful work increases self-esteem and provides a sense of accomplishment to the individual. Not to mention, you get to share your life-long experience with other people — maybe younger ones who will follow in your footsteps.
Second, you can encourage them to be more social or volunteer for a cause. Impressive research shows that volunteering can reduce the functional decline and dementia risk associated with the aging population.
If your loved one wants further motivation to become more active, think about Benjamin Franklin, who created a debate club called Junto. He remained engaged in it until the end of his life, at 84 (in 1790).
Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective tool that teaches healthy coping mechanisms. It also reduces or eliminates behavior patterns that contribute to suffering.
In case of clinical depression, a psychiatrist may also prescribe medical treatment. That will help rebalance the brain chemistry.
As with most treatments, those for mental illness have to be adapted to the specific needs of elderly individuals. That’s why it’s a good idea to find a mental health professional with a certification in geriatric psychiatry.
Nowadays, there are many ways in which technology aids long-distance caregivers. Telemedicine, virtual check-ins, and even simple video calls can help us stay connected with our aging parents or grandparents.
Furthermore, our advanced elderly monitoring system offers seniors living alone and their family caregivers a privacy-first solution with no cameras or wearable devices:
By combining our efforts with technology, we keep an eye out for any changes in their emotional well-being, detecting signs of depression early on.
For more support, check out the resources on the following pages:
Throughout our lives, most of us, unfortunately, aren’t taught adequate coping skills, like building a strong support system, to stave off depression. But it’s never too late to learn how to deal with this common disease that affects millions of seniors daily.
As the Dalai Lama once said in a 2008 interview about mental health,
"Anger, hatred, and fear are very bad for our health... Passing through life, progressing to old age, and eventually death, it is not sufficient to just take care of the body. We need to take care of our emotions as well."
Please remember that the information in this article is not a substitute for medical advice. Always consult with a healthcare professional before changing your loved one's diet, exercise routine, or medical treatment.