Depression is the most common of mental conditions which can be treated, but among the elderly, it is one of the most overlooked. Sometimes, it’s because physicians don’t recognize the signs and symptoms. Sometimes it’s because of an overall attitude of society that perhaps feeling low is just part of getting old. The danger in overlooking depression is twofold. First, quality of life that could be improved isn’t, and unnecessary suffering goes on. Second, the alarming fact of elder suicide looms. Depression is both an emotional occurrence and a physical event. The physical component is triggered by brain chemistry, and can be helped.
Feeling low doesn’t have to be a permanent part of getting older. There are many elders who are able to take aging in stride, and accept the many limitations that accompany getting along in years. Aging is frequently marked by losses. Loss of spouses, siblings and friends, as well as losses of physical strength and abilities can lead to sadness. The sadness associated with loss can often be lessened with time. But what if Dad, who lost his wife last year, just doesn’t seem to care about anything anymore? If more than a year has passed since loss of a spouse, and an aging parent still seems unable to move forward, it may to be time to see the doctor for a checkup.
If you are able to accompany Dad to the doctor, mention the problem specifically. Loss of enjoyment of things one normally likes is one of the symptoms of depression. Other symptoms include feeling sad for extended periods, loss of appetite, sleeping too much or not enough, eating too much, difficulty making decisions, steady weight loss, or unusual weight gain, irritability, outbursts of temper which are not normal, and withdrawal from friends and family.
Depression is one of the most treatable of all mental health problems. Many excellent medications can make a great difference in one’s mood and ability to participate in life. Counseling or talk therapy can also be a great help in managing feelings of loss and grief and in helping an aging parent to get through the grieving process.
If Dad is just not getting back to the way he was, and has an alarmingly long, ongoing period of sad mood and other symptoms, encourage him to see his doctor. Plan to go with him to be sure he doesn’t gloss over the problem. Many elders are unaccustomed to talking about their feelings. They may lack the basic vocabulary to describe them. The adult child can offer gentle assistance with this difficult area. If unchecked, depression can become a downward spiral with no end. It can become worse and more miserable for the depressed person as time passes.
Addressing depression in an aging parent can lead to relief, and improved quality of life. It is a loving act to suggest that the problem can be improved. It may take the initiative of a son or daughter to get help for Dad, but the effect of help if well worth your effort.