Light a path to inner peace and joy for seniors this holiday season
By Terence Gunville, LCSW
Family gatherings bring opportunities for us to reconnect with loved ones. We may not always be aware, however, that a family member could be experiencing depression.
Studies show that the risk of depression increases with age, and the highest prevalence of depression is in those 85 and older. Seniors may not recognize signs of depression or anxiety in themselves or their peers. If they do, they may be reluctant to talk about it and may even try to cover up their worries.
A holiday or special event can be particularly stressful for seniors. It’s an emotional time. Expectations and expenses run high, logistical problems create added pressures, and the unrealistic promise of happiness can block our natural inclination toward contentment.
Special events and holidays also can bring on a flood of memories and feelings of loss – loss of tradition, one’s longtime home or job, status within the family, and independence. Some people even experience a sense of loss when they can no longer entertain, race around town and juggle numerous responsibilities in preparation for celebrations.
As we age, we experience the loss of loved ones. We carry with us memories of the people we have lost. Deep and unexpressed emotions may accompany these losses.
Aging does not cause depression
Depression and anxiety are not inevitable aspects of aging. They are the result of factors that older adults experience more frequently than younger people. However, depression is significantly underreported in seniors. Although one in five older adults has some type of mental health or substance abuse issue, some older people don’t want to burden others, preferring to try to improve their situations independently.
Ironically, admitting that things aren’t going well is one of the most courageous and self-fulfilling things a person can do – and one that can bring a sense of peace to both the person who needs health care and their loved ones. The act of getting help can actually boost self-confidence.
It is not necessary for anyone to suffer from depression or anxiety. Many people experience these health issues at one time or another in life, and they can be successfully treated. The issue should be brought up with an individual’s primary care physician. The physician can conduct an evaluation and either make a referral to talk with a psychotherapist, prescribe medication, or both.
Signs of depression and anxiety may include the following:
- Agitation such as pacing or hand-wringing
- Loss of interest in activities
- Changes in appetite, grooming or cleanliness
- Memory or social problems that others could mistake for cognitive problems
Some people turn to alcohol and medication abuse to dampen the pain of depression, anxiety or other age-related conditions. Substance abuse can cause all sorts of other health problems and lead to falls.
What to do
So how do you know whether an older friend or relative may be suffering from anxiety or depression, and what can you do about it?
First, listen and watch for signs. Is your loved one restless, fatigued, silent, or consumed with worry or hopelessness? Has he or she been acting confused, irritable, forgetful or standoffish? What about noticeable weight gain or loss, or changes in activities or attitudes?
Next, be aware that health problems such as chronic pain from arthritis, limitations in mobility, vision and hearing loss, COPD, cancer, heart disease, Parkinson's disease, stroke, Alzheimer's disease and other issues also can involve depression and require a doctor's intervention.
If you think someone may be suffering from, or susceptible to, depression or anxiety, you can:
- Encourage the person to see a doctor.
- Stay more closely connected. Call, write and visit.
- Recognize abilities before disabilities.
- Assist with their activities. Discuss ways to overcome barriers.
- Ask questions, but be gentle.
- Listen and be empathetic.
- Refrain from judging or dismissing their concerns or actions.
- Get information and resources from NAMIWaukesha.org or NAMIWisconsin.org.
The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation reports that untreated depression can lead to disability, worsening of illness, premature death and suicide. As our population ages, we can expect to see more people with depression and anxiety in our communities. We all need to be more aware of the signs of depression and do our best to be supportive of seniors, both emotionally and physically.