When most of us think of serious illnesses, a few salient ones come to mind, like heart disease, diabetes, or maybe even cancer. But what a lot of people don’t know is that one of the fastest-growing and most devastating conditions is depression — especially among seniors. As a chronic illness, depression can deteriorate the victim’s quality of life, or even shorten it. In worst-case scenarios, depression can lead to catastrophic events, like suicide.
When I was the Director of Social Services at a nursing home, I saw many seniors struggling with depression. This tragedy was often compounded by the fact that the patients and their families were unaware of the disease – or their options to manage it. Fortunately, senior depression is treatable. If caught in time, symptoms can often be alleviated, leaving the patient free to live a full and rewarding life – often in the homes they’ve lived in for decades.
Senior depression is often silent
Unlike teenagers (who may act out when depressed) or middle-aged adults (who may verbalize when they feel symptomatic), depressed seniors often keep silent about their condition. There are many reasons for this. One is that when seniors were growing up, depression was not understood as well as it is today. Doctors now recognize depression as a medical illness, but seniors may still be under the impression that it’s a character flaw. This can make them reluctant to bring it up for fear of seeming “weak.”
Another reason depressed seniors may be reluctant to talk about their feelings is because they are physically or cognitively unable to do so. Many elderly adults have suffered strokes, aneurysms, and other cerebral events that affect speech. In addition, dementia and traumatic brain injuries can limit the victim’s capacity to communicate. In these cases, it is advisable to look for non-verbal signs of depression, such as disinterest in everyday activities, or severe agitation.
Why seniors may be depressed
Every stage of life has its issues and challenges, and becoming a senior is no different. During my work at several nursing homes, I saw many individuals suffer a perceived loss of independence, identity, and autonomy when they were admitted to long-term care. Such a change in living circumstances would surely grieve a person at any age. But that wasn’t the only challenge my patients had to deal with. They were frequently coping with other illnesses that tested their patience and pain tolerance. Coupled with the loss of close friends and familiar surroundings, depression would often set in, and quickly.
Senior depression can be treated at home
Fortunately, long-term care is not the only option when it comes to senior living arrangements. Studies show that it may be less expensive to care for elders at home – and most of them prefer it! Today’s home care options offer a balance of familiarity, security, and independence that go a long way in mitigating the effects of mental illnesses. Simply being in their preferred environment helps depressed seniors feel a sense of comfort and control often absent in other settings.
Be sure to check with your elderly loved one’s physician or therapist before finding the right care option for them. If necessary, include depression in your treatment plan. Remember – depression doesn’t have to be a degenerative disease. It can be managed – often right in the patient’s home.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home senior care. Contact us to find out more.