We often assume that depression is just a normal part of aging. We think that it’s an inevitable result of all the changes our parents and grandparents go through as they age. But is that really the case? And what can you do to help a loved one who’s suffering from depression?
Depression Isn’t Part of Aging
Depression is a medical condition that doesn’t normally come along with aging. According to studies, many older adults are actually satisfied with their lives despite dealing with issues like more illnesses. Older adults experience many changes that may trigger difficult feelings, like: sickness, losing a loved one, or retirement. However, it’s not true that these changes will necessarily lead to depression. Depression is very different from simply feeling down or sad. It starts developing if the person fails to deal with the changes in their lives and loses emotional balance.
What to Look for? Know the main symptoms of depression in old age
Here are some of the symptoms to look for if you think a loved one might be suffering from depression:
- Unexplained aches. Depression can worsen any physical pain they might already have.
- Loss of interest in socializing or hobbies. They might start skipping outings you used to have with them on a regular basis.
- Fall in self-esteem. They start neglecting their physical appearance or showing signs of reluctance about it. Your grandma might stop wearing makeup or your grandpa might stop wearing his favorite perfume.
- Sudden changes in mood. They start getting irritated by small things or acting in such a way that’s different from how they normally act.
- Sleep disturbances. Older adults who have insomnia have a higher probability of developing depression.
- Weight loss or loss of appetite. They might start eating more or less than usual.
- Poor concentration. They might have difficulty concentrating on tasks, remembering things, or making decisions.
- Slowed movement or reactions.
Contrary to what we may expect, older adults usually don’t complain about “sadness” when they’re suffering from depression. They tend to focus more on lack of energy and physical pains, such as: pain from arthritis or headaches. Make sure you always pay attention to the symptoms your loved one is communicating without making assumptions.
Depression Versus Dementia, or forgetfulness
Many of us mistake symptoms of depression in older adults for dementia. In fact, depression and dementia often occur together as 20%-30% of people with dementia also have depression. However, both are very different conditions that need different types of treatment and misdiagnosing one as the other can really impact the progress of the patient. What makes matters worse is that people with dementia already have difficulty communicating their symptoms of depression given their illness. Here are a few elements that can help you tell apart dementia from depression:
People with depression suffer from problems with concentration and may sometimes have trouble remembering certain events. Those with dementia may not remember events at all and will always have difficulty remembering new things.
People with depression have no problem recognizing who they’re talking to, time of day, etc. Those with dementia can have difficulty with such things.
If someone is depressed, they might speak slow at times, but won’t have issues with language usage. However, someone with dementia can face difficulty remembering names of common objects.
- Use of familiar objects
Those with depression won’t have trouble using familiar objects and doing familiar actions. Those with dementia, on the other hand, can struggle with actions as simple as putting on their jacket.
What You Can Do to Support a Loved One With Depression
Here are a few very helpful things you can do to help a parent or a grandparent who’s dealing with depression.
- Listen and use gestures wisely
Most of us focus too much on giving advice or suggestions to make a loved one feel better. Keep in mind that you don’t always have to have something to say in return. A simple hug or gesture to let them know you’re there for them can do just as well.
- Games, photos, and stories!
Doing something as simple as playing a game of cards or solving crosswords or puzzles can help lighten their mood. Even looking at old photos and listening to them as they tell the stories behind them can be very meaningful.
- Highlight the importance of exercise.
Exercise is a powerful mood booster. Taking them out for a walk or even going to a yoga class with them can really help.
- Don’t take over their life.Don’t “overhelp” the elderly
We might think that we’re making things easier for a loved one with depression by doing their tasks for them. This can actually make things worse, as it can heighten their sense of being burdensome or feelings of incapability. Instead, try entrusting them with a responsibility that’s meaningful, like taking care of a plant or a pet.
- Make sure they’re eating right.
Make sure they’re having foods that are rich in fibers (bananas, beans, legumes, whole grain bread, etc.) and lean protein. Keep sugar, starch, and unhealthy fats to a minimum. Foods rich in omega-3, like: walnuts, salmon, flax seeds, etc. are also quite helpful.
- Create a support system.
An active social life can really help with feelings of loneliness and isolation that are common in depressed people. If they’re into reading, help them join a book club. Take them to community events, or encourage them to get in touch with old friends.
- Don’t force your terminology on them.
Don’t use heavy words, like: “depression,” “struggling” or “therapy” if they’re resistant to the idea that they’re sick. Use simpler words such as: “sad,” “rough time,” and “help” to make it easier to discuss the topic with them.