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Beating Holiday Depression in the Elderly

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According to Mental Health America, more than two million of the 34 million Americans aged 65 and older suffer from some form of depression -- and during the holidays, this number climbs.

sad elderly woman at christmas

While individuals aged 65 and older account for only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 20 percent of all suicide deaths.

We sat down with Diane Walker, RN, MS, of Griswold Special Care, for tips on fighting depression in your elderly loved ones this holiday season.

momlogic: What are signs of depression in the elderly?

Diane Walker: Signs of depression in your elderly loved one can be difficult to identify and are oftentimes overlooked when they overlap with other medical illnesses or health problems. However, depression does not have to be a normal part of the aging process and it's important to keep a close eye on your older relatives so you can step in if need be. Here are a few common symptoms to watch out for:

  • Keeping their homes dark with shades drawn
  • Withdrawn from friends and family
  • Decreased appetite
  • Tiredness or insomnia
  • Lack of attention to personal care
  • Sadness or loss of interest in activities they once found to be enjoyable
  • Loss of self-worth
  • Anxiety

ml: How can you approach your loved one about their depression?

DW: As your loved one ages, it's normal to notice a general slowdown in their behavior and physical activities. But if you're concerned they may be suffering from something more serious, approach them cautiously and honestly about the changes you've noticed. Here are some tips:

  • Remember to be sensitive to their feelings. Perhaps discuss a time when you felt sad or depressed, so they know that you understand.
  • If you notice a change in appetite, gently ask why they're uninterested in food. If they're unwilling to talk, you might try including them in the preparation of their next meal or making a grocery list for the week.
  • Listen. It's oftentimes hard to hear the unpleasant feelings of those you love, but when they start talking, listen to what they're saying and offer your support just by being there.
  • Don't assume your loved one is depressed just because they are sad or tired one day. However, if they become "stuck" in these emotions or behaviors, talk to them about possibly going to see their doctor. Let them know that you're also interested in learning about these symptoms and that you'd like to go with them. If they feel they have the support from a close friend or family member, they may be more likely to seek help.

Overall, it's important to keep an eye on your loved one. If you notice changes that pose a threat to their safety, speak with a medical professional about your concerns.

ml: What are the most effective ways of fighting depression in the elderly?

DW: Fortunately, depression is a treatable disease: Approximately 80 percent of depressed individuals can recover fully when treated with modern antidepressant medications and psychotherapy. Aside from medication, family and friends can offer their support and comfort to ease their loved ones' feelings of despair. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Stay Active: Keep your loved one active and engaged with peers. Senior groups plan activities like exercise, meals, games and trips; look into these groups with your relative and find one that best fits their interests. Also, have fun with brainteasers, memory games and puzzles. These employ areas of the brain that aren't regularly stimulated.
  • Pen Pals: If you live far away, sending cards is a great way to open up new lines of communication with seniors. If you're nearby, encourage out-of-state friends and family to keep in touch this way.
  • Do Your Research: Understanding depression and accepting that while some behaviors can be changed, others cannot, will keep your expectations realistic and will help your supportive efforts.
  • Seek Support: Caring for another human being for an extended period of time can take its toll on even the most caring and nurturing of people, so don't be afraid to ask for help. Whether it means alternating days with a relative or bringing in a professional caregiver like the ones working for Griswold Special Care, it's worth it to keep your relationship intact in the long run.
  • Lend a Hand: Help your relative make appointments with a physician, take them there and then monitor medication compliance.

ml: Why does depression happen so frequently during the holiday season?

DW: For most of us, the holidays are a time of joy and happiness. However, for older individuals, the holidays can be difficult because they are often reminded of their losses and how much things have changed. They may reflect on the absence of friends, family, siblings, parents and possibly even a spouse. They can also become resentful towards any health problems they may be faced with, or their loss of independence. The most important thing you can do is to engage and include your loved one in various activities surrounding the holidays, reminding them of those who are here who love them and care for them.

next: 144 Ounces of Holiday Cheer
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