Depression is a dark cloud that lowers on us and destroys our emotional well-being. It drains away our pleasure in life and can lead us to feelings of despair and hopelessness. One of the natural outcomes of depression is withdrawal, leaving individuals isolated and without support.
Depression can be particularly devastating to seniors. We know that isolation and loneliness can contribute to cognitive decline. We also know that depression tends to last longer in seniors than in younger individuals. One of the contributing factors for the length of depression can be a lack of physical exercise.
Seniors tend to be less physically active than younger individuals. In fact, research shows that seniors on average watch more than eight hours of television a day. That keeps them sedentary, which is very bad for mental health. Further, the effect of the television screen can be depressing in and of itself.
Depression can also lead to premature placement in institutional care. Seniors who stop taking care of themselves because they are depressed can find themselves placed in long term care or assisted living sooner than might have been the case. This robs them of the independence that they could have enjoyed.
Untreated depression can also make individuals more vulnerable to developing other serious health conditions such as heart disease or immune disorders. There is also a close correlation between depression and dementia. Depression can lead to anger, irritation, or high levels of anxiety. This can lead to relationship breakdowns and families are robbed of the joy and support of important family members.
Finally, the risk of suicide is high in seniors and is particularly high for men. Suicide not only ends a life prematurely, but is completely devastating to family members. It leaves a lifetime of pain, hurt and guilt.
Factors that Increase the Risk of Depression
Seniors have risk factors that are unique to them. Chronic pain that is not well managed can have a debilitating effect on mental health. So too can interactions between medications. Seniors tend to be on multiple medications — so it is important that discussions with the pharmacist occur before adding more.
Certain illnesses are also associated with depression. Heart problems, low thyroid activity and a lack of vitamin B12 or folic acid can negatively impact mental health. Additionally, low blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and diabetes are associated with depression in seniors.
Along with illness, medications can also be contributing to or causing depression. Some blood-pressure medications, beta-blockers, steroids, digoxins or sedatives have been associated with depression. If your mom or dad is using this type of medication it is important to speak to their doctor about your concerns. Do not stop taking medications without consulting your physician as sudden stoppage can have serious health consequences.
In our senior years, our support network comes under strain. We lose family and friends to relocation and to death. If we don’t make a concerted effort to add new people to our social network, it can dwindle to the point where we feel isolated. Your mom or dad may feel isolated.
[For tips on how to improve social networks check out our blog post: How Healthy Is Your Social Network?]
Signs that Mom or Dad Might Be Depressed
What are some of the common warning signs that your mom or dad might be depressed?
You may see physical changes:
- Sudden weight gain or weight loss
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping all the time
- Decreased energy and physical fatigue
- Agitation or restlessness
- Pain that seems to have no cause
You may see behavior changes:
- Withdrawal from activities
- Inability to make decisions
- Neglecting personal care or regular household chores
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs (including non-prescription drugs)
You may see emotional or cognitive changes:
- Confusion or memory troubles
- Preoccupation with perceived failures or personal inadequacies
- Significant drop in self-confidence or self-esteem
- Crying for no apparent reason
- Unprovoked anger or aggression
If you see some of these common warning signs it is important not to ignore them. There are many approaches to treating depression and helping your mom or dad regain their mental health.
If you suspect that your mom or dad is depressed, get them to their family doctor. Depression can be successfully treated. While medication often takes longer to be successful with more senior individuals, it can be effective.
It is likely that you will need to encourage your mom or dad to complete their course of treatment. There is a certain amount of apathy with depression and since results will not be immediate, it is important to monitor their medication regimen.
Your mom or dad may benefit from talking to a psychologist or psychotherapist. If you observe negative thought patterns, cognitive therapy can help them look at and change their destructive thought patterns.
If their depression stems from the loss of a loved one, they may also benefit from speaking to a professional. Their church may have a bereavement group, where they can find comfort and support.
Diet also plays an important role in mental health. Deficiencies in essential nutrients can negatively impact the brain. When individuals live alone, it is easy to decide it is not worth cooking for one. Making sure their freezer has single serving meals is a great way to avoid food spoilage. As well, stocking up on nutritious soups is another way to support your mom or dad… you can hide a lot of kale in a soup!
Look for meals that are easy to make but loaded with nutrients. Microwaves are great for heating up pre-cooked meals. You may consider putting together a series of single-serving, pre-cooked meat and soups in their freezer for easy access. Encouraging them to make smoothies for themselves is another way to increase fiber and nutrient intake.
Water consumption is also an important part of a healthy diet. We lose our thirst trigger as we age, so it is easy to neglect this important aspect of brain health. Having a water bottle that they fill and consume is a good way to track water consumption. Depending on body weight and size of the bottle, you can set an ideal amount for them to drink. The rule of thumb is one cup for every twenty (20) pounds of body weight. If your dad is 160 pounds and the water bottle holds four cups, encouraging him to drink two (2) bottles each day is ideal.
Move with Music
Music can move the body and the soul. Music can calm anxious nerves or lift your spirit — so make it a part of your mom or dad’s day. You can also use music to motivate them to exercise. There is nothing like walking (or dancing) to a favorite tune to bring out a smile or lift depressed spirits. Encourage your mom or dad to have music playing during the day. It can have such a positive effect on mood.
It is important not to ignore warning signs of depression. Untreated depression can lead to illness and death and rob you of an important relationship. I have found the relationship with my dad to improve as we both are growing older (and likely wiser). There is so much still to share and enjoy with each other. And not only for me — but also for my children. The role of a grandfather (or grandmother) should not be underestimated. They add a lot to the family history and help give children roots to grow on. They are special relationships!
For more ideas on things that you can do, check out our blog post: Helping Someone with Depression
Nicole has trained hundreds of professional and family caregivers who have touched the lives of thousands of individuals living with a cognitive impairment. Nicole also holds a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Master’s in Law from Queen’s University specializing in Negotiations and is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging.