How to Combat Senior Depression

Life doesn’t stop moving even when we want it to; it’s a constant stream of action and the end of action. As we age, it seems the end of action happens more and more frequently and often culminates in the loss of friends, family, and even a spouse. It can mean a stop to the things we used to enjoy as arthritis puts a painful halt to a favored pastime like gardening or golf, or an injury prevents certain movements. Perhaps a surgery leaves you less sprightly or sees you recovering more slowly than you’d like or you recover more slowly than you would have five years ago.

All these changes, endings and even new beginnings can take a toll on you, your body, mind, and spirit. Losing mobility can lead to feelings of inadequacy or of becoming a burden while the loss of those near and dear can lead to the grief that never seems to end. While all these emotions are normal and expected they may also lead to depression, a common problem among seasoned citizens that is often overlooked or goes unreported. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell exactly when or even if depression has crept in and taken root.

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What is Depression?

Depression, commonly called the blues or feeling down, can happen in anyone, at any age and at any time. It’s more than an emotional response to an event in life; it can be caused by medication too. Depression is a robber and it’s greedy: it can take your energy, your interest in hobbies and actions that once brought you joy, it can steal your desire to engage with others, even your appetite or ability to sleep. It can cause health problems. It slinks in and affects every aspect of your life until you seem very little like your normal self and worse of all, it steals the basic happiness of life, from the gentle thrill of an embrace to the pleasures of conversation. Depression isn’t fun and you don’t have to suffer the hurt. It’s not just part of aging or life: it needs to be addressed and arrested.

Senior depression can stem from grief, the loss of mobility, the diagnosis of a disease or ailment, isolation from loved ones, loneliness, chronic pain, retirement, a reduction in a sense of purpose or sense of worth, diminished body image, fear and anxiety about health, life or death, and bereavement. Depression can cause a number of notable signs:

  • Slowed speech or physical motions
  • A preoccupation with thoughts of death, dying and suicide
  • Inability to focus or function at home, work or even school
  • An overwhelming sense of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Sudden or constant bouts of weeping
  • Intense feelings of guilt
  • Neglect of personal care or hygiene
  • Lack of motivation
  • Irritability/baseless anger
  • Auditory or visual hallucinations
Telling Depression from Grief

Grief is painful and deep, sharing many symptoms with depression. This makes it very hard to tell them apart, but depression adds some serious punch of its own that grief does not generally encompass. Grief is a sense of loss, yes; but it doesn’t come with many of the above signs- of itself, grief does not cause guilt, slowed speech or motion, nor thoughts of death and suicide. Grief will still allow moments of joy or pleasure, a sense of comfort when it’s given. Grief finds pleasure in a friend’s hug or the sight of the grandchild; depression, on the other hand, does not. In fact, those simple moments may actually make the feeling of depression and isolation worse.

Grief moves up and down, it comes and goes like a tide moving in and out. Eventually, it can be controlled and will fade. Conversely, depression is a constant; it doesn’t run hot and cold, it won’t take you on a roller coaster ride. Mourning is healthy and serves a purpose, painful as it might be to experience. Life will return to normal and emotions will even out again. Depression is not healthy, doesn’t serve a purpose and will only worsen the more deeply it’s settled into. Life doesn’t return to normal and emotions remain numbed or negative.

Senior Depression from Illness or Medication

Certain illnesses can also cause or be a catalyst for depression. Sometimes chemical imbalances due to physical or mental trauma can throw a body into a depressed state. Diabetes, strokes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, dementia/Alzheimer’s, chronic pain and hypertension can all increase the risk or onset of depression. Dementia can be especially difficult to separate from depression as both can cause confusion, loss of mental alertness, forgetfulness, and cognitive slowness. The medications used to counter these illnesses can also cause depression due to how they affect the hormones and balance of the brain. If depression comes on after receiving medication for an illness, consult your doctor right away. Doses can be lowered or a prescription changed entirely so you don’t suffer the depressive side effects that can interfere with your life. However, if you’re receiving medication for depression specifically, never stop cold turkey. You will make matters even worse and in some cases, it can be extremely dangerous. Consult your physician who will wean you off the medicine.

How to Combat Senior Depression

While depression is a powerful foe, it can be fought. Understanding you are depressed rather than simply in pain or mourning is an important distinction. Seeking professional healthcare is a wise move as you may be suffering from a chemical imbalance, common as we age. It’s not all about chemicals though; it’s about life and suffering, especially alone. Even surrounded by friends and family you can feel isolated and unheard, which hurts terribly. Depression in the elderly can increase the risk of heart attack and suicide. Over six million Americans alone age 65 and older suffer from depression and sadly, less than 10% seek any kind of help or treatment or even report it. Again, while common it is not normal or a normal part of aging. Depression can’t be willed away – you might as well will your hair to turn green- but it can be controlled and ultimately overcome.

  • Exercise regularly. Consult your doctor beforehand. This can be a simple 20-minute walk around the block but it has a powerful impact on your mental health.
  • Don’t drink alcohol or use recreational drugs. These can dull the pain but will ultimately increase the depression and can lead to addition. They are no good for a healing mind.
  • Get enough sleep. As we age we need less -or get less- sleep. No sleep at all is not healthy. Consult your physician.
  • Talk about your feelings. It may sound corny, but talking it out is an amazing way to work through depression. Find someone willing to listen more and interject less. A friend might help, but an impartial counselor or professional therapist would also be a wise choice.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Avoid sweets and junk foods, stick to the good stuff. Fruit is nature’s candy if you have a sweet tooth.
  • Volunteer or adopt a pet. Distraction helps and not being cooped up in your room or home alone does wonders. Volunteer to help others or adopt a pet to keep your mind off your worries and place your attention elsewhere.
  • Be surrounded by positive, loving people. Keep your atmosphere upbeat and positive; being around quiet, motionless or sad people will only sink you deeper into depression. This includes seeking someone to talk to, connecting with others and socializing.
  • Learn a new skill or hobby. It’s a bold-faced myth to say the older you are, the less you can learn. The brain never stops learning and it’s a great distraction. Getting back into the hobbies and activities you used to enjoy is also excellent for combating depression.
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