Seniors often face stressful situations, including chronic illness, financial problems, and loss of independence. Add that to physical and emotional isolation, and you've got a recipe for depression.
But there's a big difference between situational unhappiness and clinical depression. Feelings of sadness and anger are natural after a catastrophic event like a heart attack or the death of a loved one, but when those feelings linger for months on end and prevent a senior from getting any enjoyment out of life, it's more than a normal reaction to grief.
Here are some practical suggestions for helping someone with depression.
Know the warning signs
Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between depression and just a case of the blues. Depression is more than just feeling sad or "down." Depression affects a person's thinking, emotions, behavior, and physical health. A depressed person may feel empty inside, or may no longer enjoy activities she once loved. She may complain of aches and pains that can't be explained or treated. When someone has several of these symptoms for weeks or months, it's likely that she's clinically depressed.
If you think someone has a case of depression, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the warning signs. And it's also helpful to know what specific indicators to look for:
- Lack of interest in personal appearance. One of the most obvious signs of depression in the elderly is when they stop caring about their personal appearance. If your mother used to take great pride in her looks but no longer bothers with makeup, she may be feeling depressed.
- Increased complaints about aches and pains. Depression can actually amplify physical pain, turning minor irritations into severe discomfort. If your once-stoic mother won't stop complaining about her sore feet, she may be suffering from more than just bunions.
- Social withdrawal. Depressed seniors tend to push other people away—especially those they love the most. If the person you're caring for suddenly starts making excuses not to see you or other family members or friends, it's worth checking into what's really going on.
Bring up the subject of depression
Break the taboo.
Depression is a taboo subject for many seniors, and they may have an especially tough time thinking of it as an actual illness. But the first step toward helping someone who's depressed is letting her know you care and support her.
Broach the subject carefully. Instead of plunging directly into a tough discussion about therapy or treatment, try asking what's going on. "I've noticed you haven't been sleeping well and you've been so irritable lately. You just don't seem like yourself. Are you okay?" Of course, there's no guarantee that your tactful, gentle probing will open the floodgates, but it's worth a shot.
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