Color & Control:

5 ways to help those struggling with depression    

While many assume it’s just “normal” to be sad when we get closer to the end of life, I think the truth still remains that instances of depression have become one of the greatest epidemics to hit the aging population. 

Research shows depression is the seventh most common chronic condition in assisted living, affecting nearly 30 percent of residents. The National Council on Aging says it’s as prevalent as heart failure in aging adults — so prevalent that it’s led to “disturbingly high” levels of suicide. 

In fact, 1 in 4 seniors live with a mental health problem (e.g. depression, anxiety or dementia) or illness, and 10 to 15% of adults 65 or older and living in the community suffer from depression. This number rises to 44% for seniors in residential care.

The following are just a few things children, family and friends can do to help older adults maintain longevity in the face of depression and mental illness.

1) Acknowledge. Acknowledge that depression is not a “normal” part of aging. Yes, many older adults grieve the loss of friends and loved ones, but depression is not a right of passage into our winter years. It is a health condition that needs to be addressed like any other.

2) Talk. I believe it is our responsibility as family and caregivers to notice changes in personality and interests and discuss them openly, without shame or judgment. Numerous simple screening tests for depression are available online. Don’t be afraid of the words, “Have you considered suicide? Have you thought of ways to do it?” They might be hard to say, but they could save a life.

3) Touch. Oxytocin is an incredibly important part of happy and healthful living. It doesn’t matter where your loved one is living—a wonderful assisted living community or their own home. If they aren’t receiving the gift of touch, I think that could increase their risk for depression. Hug, love and cuddle the older adults in your life as much as they’ll let you.

4) Involve. I think we all need purpose and meaning in our lives. That doesn’t change when we age! Be sure to include older adults in substantive activities and offer them ways to showcase their own strengths and skill sets; be it helping you with your finances, strategizing a new business deal, or simply caring for your children. That sense of stimulus and fulfillment can go a long way in combatting depression.

5) Advocate. If your loved ones are not able to advocate for themselves, do it for them. Make sure their caregiver or assisted living community properly screens for depression and mental illness on a regular basis, and ensure they receive the medication or talk therapy treatment they need to get better.

Often, Older adults aren’t the only ones who don’t understand the mental pain their family members are struggling with. Children are often in the dark about the mental illness that might accompany, or lead to, chronic disease in their parents as well. Depression does not need to be a “normal” part of aging. It’s up to all of us to acknowledge and address the risk. 

Jess Stonefield is a contributing writer on aging, technology, senior care, housing and longevity.

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