Depression is not a normal part of aging

Many of us dream of how we’re going to spend our golden years.  In full health and vitality, surrounded by our children and grandchildren, and relishing in the fruits of our long labor.  But no one ever wonders what happens if life decides to give us a bad hand that makes our golden years anything but golden.  No one can ever prepare for ill-health, loss of work, and honestly, the reality of aging is something that rarely turns out as expected.  That disparity between reality and expectations can be a huge contributing factor in the incidence of depression among the elderly.  Instead, we have disappointment, as we suddenly have to deal with things such as a stroke, or loss of a spouse, or isolation. 

It’s not a given that seniors will have depression.  In fact, major depression in seniors is relatively low with no higher than 5% of older adults over the age of 65 who live in the community experiencing it.  The Canadian Psychological Association reports that the SYMPTOMS of depression, unfortunately, are higher in the senior population, such as loss of energy, loss of interest and pleasure in usual activities, and complaints of pain and memory problems.  

For seniors living in long-term care homes, who are suffering from chronic disease, and even those who are caregiving a fellow senior, the risk for depression creeps higher.  Depression in older adults increases the risk of suicide as well, so being able to recognize the signs of depression is essential for caregivers and family members.

The Symptoms

Unfortunately, the symptoms of depression also happen to be some of the natural occurrences that we experience as we age, like trouble sleeping and fatigue.  On top of that, seniors are more likely to keep their symptoms to themselves before disclosing anything to their caregivers.  But DEPRESSION is not a normal part of aging.  It will be up to the caregivers to keep an eye out for symptoms, especially if they last longer than 2 weeks, such as:

  • Persistent feelings of emptiness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Increased fatigue
  • Difficulty remembering (not Alzheimer’s related); difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep issues including oversleeping, insomnia and interrupted sleep
  • Change in eating habits (eating more or less than usual)
  • Consistent aches and pains, headaches, without a clear cause
  • Frequent crying
  • Thoughts or talks of suicide

The Causes

If there’s a history of depression in a person’s life, then there is a risk of experiencing depression in senior years as well.  The loss of a spouse, especially for men, has a strong association with depression.  After experiencing a stroke, seniors usually experience depression due to the loss of control and independence, not to mention sometimes permanently losing their ability to use certain limbs.  Disability, as well as loneliness and having a poor social network, or none at all, can lead to depression as well.

Potential Solutions

Thankfully there is more talk of depression among people of all ages.  Mental health issues are becoming a mainstream topic of public conversation and recognized as an emerging national healthcare issue.

So how can we support seniors, and how can seniors support themselves through depression and depressive episodes?

  • Talk to a doctor – may prescribe medication, therapy
  • TALK to people in your support circle – friends, family, neighbors – the more people know that there is a struggle, the more help will be offered
  • ACCEPT help.  This is not the time to keep up appearances.  Depression can rapidly accelerate to a point of no return.  So if help is offered, take it.

Ways to Prevent Depression or Relapses

On better days, work on keeping mental health strong and try to prevent relapses.  Here’s a list of things that seniors can do to prevent depression and improve overall mental health.  This is not an exhaustive list, and of course, physical and mental capabilities must be taken into account as well.

  • Mind Games – puzzles, crosswords, word searches are a great way to delay mental decline
  • Exercise – although the studies are small, there is currently research being done to delve more into the promise that exercise improves mental health of older adults from earlier studies.  There are many recommendations made in studies to include physical exercise as a way to support mental health in seniors. Low-impact exercises can help reduce the risk of physical issues such as bone loss and pain, while anxiety, stress and depression can also be reduced with physical activities.
  • Keep social – nurturing friendships and social networks is essential for anyone who suffers from depression.  Depression is a wicked cycle.  When you lose touch with friends/family, it can make one lonely and depressed; and when one gets depressed, it makes one not want to socialize.  Over time and distance, it gets trickier to maintain relationships, especially with older friends.  But a concerted effort needs to be made to keep up a little bit of a social calendar, so try to find ways to pencil in phone calls, zoom chats, distanced visits if you can.
  • Pet sitting – caring for a pet is one of the best ways to get through depression and anxiety!  Pet sitting and pet caring provides routine, keeps seniors busy, and gives a sense of responsibility.  Pets provide undying love and companionship in return, and has also been shown to reduce blood pressure and beat loneliness
  • Reading and writing – reading is great for defeating boredom, and keeps the brain active with new ideas.  Journaling is a great way to relieve anxiety, or at least, give anxiety a voice.  Both of these activities can also help reduce stress and provide better sleep.

Reaching out to our seniors, and for seniors to reach out for help, is the best way to take care of each other and get through hard times.  Depression doesn’t have to be an accessory to aging.  With a good support and social network, hobbies and learning opportunities, and daily movement, not only seniors, but everyone, will thrive and survive depression.

January 28th is Bell Let’s Talk Day in Canada, a great initiative by Bell to create a national conversation between people in order to destroy the stigma attached to having mental illness.  On January 28th, Bell will donate 5¢ for every text, call, tweet or TikTok video using the #BellLetsTalk hashtag towards mental health initiatives in Canada.  Let’s Talk.