Elderly adults are at high risk for depression, and have traditionally been underserved by counselors and therapists, despite having the highest suicide rate in the country. Many seniors resist seeking help for mental health issues because they don’t want to appear burdensome to their families, or refuse treatment because of the stigmas associated with mental health disorders, or have incorrect perceptions about counseling.
As family members enter their senior years, it’s important to understand that depression is not a normal sign of aging, and as such, seniors need just as much help dealing with the symptoms of depression as anyone else.
But how do you help an elderly family member when they aren’t interested in seeking treatment?
Although many are better educated on depression and mental health issues than they were decades ago, there are still harmful stereotypes about mental disorders that exist. While you certainly don’t have to be an expert in order to support and love an elderly family member with depression, familiarizing yourself with depression will prevent you from using well-intentioned, but hurtful language.
Additionally, asking thoughtful and thorough questions will be helpful for your elderly loved ones, since no one person’s experience with depression is the same as another’s.
Recognize early symptoms
Recognizing depression in elderly family members starts with knowing the indicators and symptoms. While depression is often associated with feelings of sadness or despair, numerous people diagnosed with depression don’t report sadness at all. In fact, there are numerous other symptoms for depression that you should be aware of, such as:
- Sadness or feelings of despair
- Loss of interest in socializing or activities they once enjoyed
- Noticeable weight loss or gain
- Lack of motivation
- Disruptions in typical sleep patterns: difficulty falling asleep, oversleeping, or other abnormal behaviors
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Memory problems
- Neglecting self care
Additionally, as a caretaker or loved one, you’ll want to identify the warning signs of worsening depression, and keep track of circumstances in their life which might trigger episodes more so than others.
Encourage loved ones to seek help
The very nature of depression itself impedes a person’s ability or desire to seek help, as they lack energy and self confidence. For seniors who were raised in an era where mental illness was highly misunderstood, the journey to seeking treatment can be even more complex–especially if they are under the impression that depression isn’t a real or serious illness.
If an elderly loved one experiences depression, family members can make a difference by offering emotional support. Understand that it isn’t your responsibility to “fix” or “cure” someone’s depression. Rather, it’s more important to be understanding and supportive of their feelings, diagnosis, and treatment. Helping and supporting your family member while they search for a good doctor, and accompanying them to their appointments will make them feel supported.
One of the most important things you can do for an elderly family member dealing with depression is offer support, which can come in a variety of different forms.
- Continue to encourage them to stick with treatment. If a loved one has decided to seek treatment for their depression, they might need an occasional reminder to take their medications, keep appointments, and make it to counseling sessions.
- Listen in a supportive manner. Let your loved one know that you are eager to listen to how they feel. Listen carefully to their concerns and thoughts, and avoid judgemental or opinionated responses. Give positive reinforcement to them for sharing their thoughts and remind them of their positive qualities.
- Help them maintain a stress free environment. Stress and tension exacerbate mental health issues in depressed individuals, so maintaining a stress free environment can greatly help depressed seniors. They may need you to help maintain a routine which includes scheduled mealtimes, medication, physical activity, chores, and sleep.
- Make frequent plans to socialize and spend time together. Depression often causes a lack of interest in participating in social activities, and for seniors especially, quality time with friends and loved ones is crucial. Ask your family member out for small things, like walks around the park, participating in hobbies they once enjoyed, or include them in family outings.
Helping loved ones who are depressed is crucial to their well being, especially as they enter their later years in life. By simply recognizing early indicators of depression, listening, and making a concerted effort to be sure their basic needs are met, family members can make a huge impact in the lives of their elderly loved ones.
Danika McClure is a musician and writer from the Northwest who is passionate about social justice and education.