According to an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, approximately 10 to 20% of elderly people exhibit significant symptoms of depression. It isn’t just a passing thing either. Two years later, only about 30% of depressed people have recovered.
It’s not just a matter of Mom or Dad being a little sad sometimes. According to researchers Cole and Dendukiru, depressed people function at about the same level as people with chronic health problems like heart and lung disease, diabetes, and arthritis pain. Depression also makes a person feel bad about his or her own state of health and causes the person to go to the doctor more often, incurring costs and frustration.
It’s in everyone’s best interests for relatives and caregivers to find out if a particular senior is significantly depressed. For example, one adult daughter of an elderly patient was shocked to read on a physical therapist’s report that her mother presented as “Depressed.” She had not realized that her emotionally reserved mother was feeling so down.
Depression in the elderly often goes undiscovered and hence untreated. Mom or Dad may put on a brave face, or even perk up when caregivers, especially their own children, are around. Strong parental instincts may keep Mom and Dad from letting their adult children know how sad they are–after all, they know their adult children have problems and responsibilities of their own and don’t wish to burden them.
Psychologists recommend keeping an eye on whether your senior is happy or unhappy by taking special note of the following three risk factors.
The Big Three Risk Factors in Senior Depression
Bereavement is a major factor in depression among the elderly. As we grow older, losses add up–the loss of a spouse, the loss of old friends who have moved away or died–even the losses of beloved pets over the years can add to melancholy.
Another major risk factor is the elderly person having trouble sleeping. Not getting enough sleep can leave even those who are not depressed feeling irritable.
Being disabled is a third major cause of depression in the elderly. These disabilities often come about either from just simple aging (e.g., vision and hearing) or from diseases (diabetes, heart, and others). It is no fun to be unable to do what you used to do with ease and without pain. Limitations on our physical functionality make it difficult to choose to stay active, and activity aids in combatting depression.
In addition to the above three major risk factors for depression, according to researchers Cole and Dendukiru, females are at higher risk for depression. So it may be more important to monitor Mom’s moods than Dad’s. A history of depression is also an important “tell” as to how Mom or Dad may really be feeling inside.
Fortunately, there are things that can be done to alleviate some causes of elderly depression. Medication (under a doctor’s supervision) is often used but just as important can be: grief counseling, group sharing or group therapy, sleep enhancement techniques, and physical therapy for disabilities.
A Simple Solution – Help Your Senior Find Gratitude
Yet there is one scientifically proven way to help an elderly person in your care feel better about life. This solution is simple and costs absolutely nothing: it is aiding him or her in counting blessings rather than blights in life. Research has shown that gratitude dispels depression.
A state of gratitude can be achieved through several different means. Researchers Lambert, Fincham, and Tyler recommend that a person“work to frame life events positively. Some examples are: ‘I never intended to go into the field I went into, but it turned out to be the best use of my skills,’ or ‘It was a shock to us all when my mom went so quickly, but she didn’t suffer.’” In essence, a positive framing of life events means that you change the meaning you attach to an event into something positive.
Researchers Emmons and McCullough say: “Researchers, writers, and practitioners have all speculated that gratitude possesses happiness-bestowing properties,” so they set out to prove it.
The experimenters had subjects list five things per week that they were thankful for. The study measured well-being on both the physical and mental levels. People who did the five items per week felt better about their lives and also had fewer physical symptoms of discomfort like headaches, stomach irritation, sore throats, et cetera. The grateful people also tended to get more exercise–a benefit and mood-lifter in itself.
Further studies found that people who count their blessings don’t need to count as many sheep–the length and quality of their sleep improves. This is significant in light of the findings stated earlier that sleep deprivation is one of the three major risk factors for depression.
How can you lead your elderly loved one to count blessings rather than blights? Have them keep a gratitude journal, or when you are visiting or calling, keep it for them. Open up discussions of blessings to be grateful for and demonstrate positive framing of events in your own life.
Sometimes just having a conversation pointing out positives in their lives can help. As your senior begins to count blessings, he or she may surprise you with how appreciative he or she really is–and how happy he or she becomes.
Cole, Martin G. & Dendukiru, N. “Risk Factors for Depression Among Elderly Community Subjects: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, June 2003 Vol. 160 Issue 6, 1147-1156. Available online at http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.160.6.1147.
Emmons, Robert & McCullough, Michael. “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality and Psychology, 2003 Vol. 84, No. 2, 377 – 389. DOI: 10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117.
Lambert, Nathaniel & Fincham, Frank & Stillman, Tyler.“Gratitude and depressive symptoms: The role of positive reframing and positive emotion.” Cognition and Emotion, 2012 Vol. 26, Issue 4, 615-633. Available online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699931.2011.595393?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori:rid:crossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3dpubmed#.VdYqs5eYyUk