Since it's supposed to be the happiest time of the year, if you are struggling during the holidays, life can feel much, much worse. You could also be feeling the winter blues, also known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). However, the fact of the matter is that millions of Americans are suffering from depression, a clinical illness and mental disorder that requires our utmost attention.
Even though over two million seniors in the US are reported to suffer from depression, a survey from the National Mental Health Association found that 68% of Americans over the age of 65 are unaware of what depression really is and looks like.
Most seniors know very little about depression and may not be aware they are experiencing it. Being sad isn’t the only symptom of depression. They may also opt to handle things themselves, often feeling like a burden or letting their well-being slip away slowly. Seniors in these situations will often give up on the idea that anything can really help them feel better. A study by Mental Health America suggested that 58% of seniors believe it is normal for people to get depressed as they get older.
Why Senior Depression Happens
As you get older, you go through a lot of changes — seniors deal with a lot of stressful life events that are hard to understand until we get there ourselves. Seniors are experiencing the deaths of loved ones, medical problems, retirement, and changes that are hard to deal with, such as changes in their abilities, family, environments, and social life. During the holidays, these issues make us particularly vulnerable. The loss of a particular traditions can be very upsetting and bring painful issues back up to the surface. Symptoms can also be mixed up with other illnesses the senior is dealing with. For example, a loss in appetite may be explained by some other illness, which then makes it hard to distinguish which symptoms are caused by depression.
Depression and illness are interconnected; it’s more common to experience depression when you are suffering from illness or limited mobility. If 80% of seniors have at least one chronic health condition, and 50% have two or more, that means it’s very likely they are suffering from some sort of depression.
It’s often thought that depression is just a natural reaction to illness or stressful life events as we age, but it’s a mistake to not see the depression as something to be addressed. It can intensify other illnesses, lead to shorter lives, and neglect the humanity of what should be our most respected group in society. We hope this article helps you identify signs of senior depression during the holidays so you can help your loved ones when they are most in need.
Signs of Senior Depression
Depression can go undiagnosed or overlooked in seniors because sadness may not be the main symptom. They could be hiding or distancing themselves from their feelings, masking certain symptoms, or isolating themselves from others to avoid being a burden. There are many signs of depression that are less obvious unless you're looking for them, such as:
Excessive tiredness, decreased energy
Appearing slowed down mentally or physically
Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
Change in personality
Persistent sad or empty mood
Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
Feelings of hopelessness which may be expressed through pessimism
Feeling a loss of purpose or identity due to retirement or physical limitations
Increased anxiety, restlessness
Increased lethargy, unwillingness to participate socially
Headaches and migraines
Trouble sleeping: staying awake too long or oversleeping
Difficulty with daily functioning
Changes in appetite or weight
Increased aches and pains such as joint and back pain, chest pain, cramps, or digestive problems
The more pain we feel, the more we tend to be depressed. It makes sense, right? Feeling chronic pain and discomfort in your body will contribute to depression and the depression then feeds back into the illness, preventing us from taking proper care of ourselves while creating more pain and discomfort.
Seniors may also express their feelings inadvertently through increased anger, irritability, and hostility. They may also show fear, anxiety, or loss of hope in various ways including neglecting their medical needs, making less phone calls, and showing difficulty with personal hygiene, eating, and sleeping.
It is normal for seniors to experience grief after the loss of a loved one but if the grief persists over a long period of time and appears severe, depression may have set in.
Major depression can interfere with a senior's day-to-day functionality and ability to take care of themselves. This includes difficulty working, sleeping, eating, concentrating, enjoying leisure activities, indulging in happy news, being social, etc. Mild depression will have similar signs but less severe and for a shorter period of time. Persistent Depressive Disorder has less severe symptoms but will last past the holidays. That’s why it’s important to step in now when you can to stop from persisting longer.
Even if they have never been depressed before, people can get depressed later in life and this can intensify during the holidays. Likewise, people who have experienced depression before and gotten better, may struggle again with another episodes. Some people only experience depression once in their lifetime, but often depression returns with multiple episodes.
After adjusting or resolving these issues, seniors will feel happy again. However, it's important to notice when they are stuck and need a little help. Depression is a medical condition that interferes with daily life functioning and it can happen to anyone.
Senior Depression Risk Factors
Seniors have a higher risk of depression during the holidays if they are isolated, undergoing changes, have experienced stressful life events, have a personal or family history of depression, suffer from disease, chronic illness, disability, or pain, sleep poorly, or misuse alcohol or drugs. Women are also at higher risk for depression, especially widowers.
How to Help Seniors with Depression During the Holidays
The best thing you can do for seniors suffering from depression is to give them more time and careful attention. Seniors will often feel like a burden because they feel like it takes so much effort for people to spend time or understand them. That would make anyone sad!
Here are a few ways to help seniors with depression during the holidays:
Call more often than usual. Even if it’s just for a couple of minutes, it will make a big difference.
Ask for their help and advice. if you are planning something, ask for their advice. You can ask them for a recipe or suggestions for gifts. They want to participate and feel useful just like you!
Help them with their own holiday planning, and encourage them to keep a regular schedule while keeping up with traditions.
Give them some help with home-cooked meals and baking.
Surprise them with more visits, put electronic devices away, and spend more quality time with them.
Make time to make them laugh and do something fun.
Plan a family gathering and help them arrange visits with their friends
If they are mobile, take them out somewhere interactive. Keeping their minds occupied and their bodies active will encourage positive experiences that take them away from their routine and depression.
Encourage exercise. It can be done in small doses according to ability or desire. Pick an activity to do such as going for a walk, yoga, tai chi, or try some exercises designed for seniors with limited mobility at home.
Go on a drive to see holiday lights and decorated houses
Open your heart and do some active listening; when they want to talk, truly hear them out. Don’t just hear the words they are saying, really try to imagine what they must be feeling. Apathy and lack of empathy contribute to senior depression during the holidays because of how vulnerable a time it can be.
Grieve with them. If they recently lost someone, indulge in that grief with them and comfort them. Let them know they don’t have to go through it alone and hide how they feel. You will also feel closer with them because of it.
Share holiday memories together. Talk about the good times, share pictures and videos of cherished memories, and most importantly: make news ones!
Hire a Home Caregiver
If you don’t have the ability to help your senior loved ones, but you are worried they are showing signs of senior depression during the holidays, hire a home caregiver. It’s an ideal way to prevent loneliness in seniors who live on their own and who may be struggling with day to day functionality.
Home caregivers are great companions and can help with errands, cooking, baking, decorations, exercise, and scheduling holiday social activities. Hiring a home caregiver during this time of the year can really make a difference to seniors with depression or at risk for isolation. You will feel more comfortable knowing that your loved one is being taken care of, too.