There is an incorrect notion that clinical depression is normal among the elderly. While it is common, affecting over 6 million Americans ages 65 and older, it’s not unpreventable or untreatable. In fact, due to seniors displaying symptoms of depression differently, only 10% ever receive treatment. The National Institute of Mental Health considers depression in seniors to be a major public health problem.
There are multiple risk factors that increase the risk of depression in the elderly. These include:
- Being female
- Being single, unmarried, divorced, or widowed
- Lack of a supportive social network
- Stressful life events
COVID-19 has left all of us feeling a little more isolated than we normally are and for our loved ones who might already be at risk, this can make things harder on them. Now more than ever, it’s important for us to check in on our aging loved ones to make sure they’re staying connected and feel supported as we all try to navigate our new normal.
Here you can find information on:
- Symptoms of elderly depression
- Ways to treat depression
- Suggestions on how to eliminate anxiety around COVID-19
- Leveraging technology to keep our aging loved ones connected
- Way to stays connected without the need of a smart device
What are the Symptoms of Elderly Depression?
Depression impacts older people differently. For our aging loved ones, depression can often occur with other medical illnesses or disabilities and tends to last longer. Additionally, the consequences of depression among the elderly are worse, as it’s associated with an increased risk of cardiac diseases and an increased risk of death from illness. At the same time, depression reduces their ability to rehabilitate. Because of this, it’s important to make sure any older adult we are concerned about is evaluated and treated. If you notice any of the symptoms below in your loved one, encourage them to see a doctor as soon as possible.
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Irritability, restlessness, or having trouble sitting still
- Loss of interest in once pleasurable activities
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Moving or talking more slowly
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Eating more or less than usual, usually with unplanned weight gain or loss
- Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease with treatment
- Frequent crying
While these are some of the most common symptoms, they may vary depending on the individual. In some older adults, sadness is not the main symptom which might make it harder to detect depression. If these symptoms persist for more than 2 weeks, contact a doctor to get a diagnosis and start treatment.
Ways to Fight Elderly Depression and Eliminate Anxiety Around COVID-19
Even the most severe instances of depression can be treated. If you think your loved one may have depression, start by making an appointment to see a professional. Through a series of exams, interviews, and lab tests, they should be able to rule out possibilities of it being a medication side effect or another medical condition. Treatment choices for depression vary and will differ for each person, with the most common treatments being medication and psychotherapy.
In addition to medical treatment, there are small steps that can make a big difference to how they feel. Overcoming depression can involve finding new things they enjoy, adapting to change, staying physically and socially active, and feeling connected to their community and loved ones. Some examples of self-help tips you can share with them include:
- Try not to stay cooped up inside – encourage them to go to the park, take a trip to the hairdresser, or have lunch with a friend
- Volunteer for a cause they’re passionate about
- Join a support group or a club
- Focus on what they can still do, not what they used to be able to do
- Learn a new skill
- Take pride in their appearance
- Write a memoir
Perhaps most importantly, stress the importance of adopting healthy habits. Exercise is a powerful depression treatment. In fact, some research suggests that it can be just as effective as antidepressants. Anything that gets them up and moving helps! Adjusting dietary habits can also help them deal with the symptoms of depression. Have them start with small changes like minimizing sugar and refined carbs. They should focus on quality protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats. Even if they start losing their appetite, it’s important to stick to an eating schedule. Going too long without eating can worsen their mood, making them tired and irritable. Lastly, support quality sleep. Struggling with sleep problems is common but the lack of sleep can make depression worse. Try getting them to aim for 7-9 hours each night. Avoiding alcohol and caffeine, keeping a regular schedule, and making sure the bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool can all help.
Stressful life events can be a big trigger for depression, and the pandemic we are currently living through is causing stress for all of us. If your loved one is currently struggling with anxiety related to COVID-19, reassure them that they are not alone in their feelings and that there are activities they can partake in that might be helpful to reduce some of this anxiety. Remember to also make sure that they are following guidelines and taking care of themselves, given that they are a vulnerable population. We’ve outlined ways for them to stay connected and entertained both with and without the use of technology in order to help them remain calm.
Using High-Tech Devices for Connecting to Loved Ones
Technology allows us to communicate with our family, friends, and community in an endless amount of ways - from being able to see our loved ones anywhere in the world to giving us the ability to play games together from afar. Here are a couple suggestions for connecting with others during this time:
Schedule virtual visits with friends and family
There are a handful of free communication tools available that you can use to catch up with family and friends without having to leave your home! Many of them, like Zoom or Whatsapp, even offer video options to make you feel even closer.
Play your favorite games online
Playing our favorite games online has never been easier! There are many websites that offer a variety of games as well as additional websites specialized in certain games. They can also download apps on their phone to play games with others, like Words with Friends or Psych.
Join an online social group or club
Sites like SeniorChatters offer a way for older adults to engage in different discussion topics online. If they’re a reader – ask them to consider an online book club!
To find resources on all these categories and so much more, visit our resource directory. We are constantly updating and adding new entertainment and communication options!
Ways to Stay Connected Without the Use of a Smart Device
While technology can certainly facilitate communication, not having a smart device doesn’t mean they can’t reach out and talk to people they love! Here are some ideas for what you can do:
Write a letter
This is a great time to communicate the old-fashioned way and write letters to friends and family members! If they enjoy volunteering, they can write letters with messages of hope. For example, through Letters Against Depression, they can write letters to people struggling with depression.
Reach out to family and friends
We don’t need a smart phone or any technology to hop on a phone call and have great conversations! Encourage them to make a list of people they haven’t heard from in a while and maybe even list out conversation topics.
Through it all, reassure them that they’re not alone and there is help available – for them and you. We’ve got this!