Depression and older people

There are days which are simply dragging on at a snail’s pace, the hours are twice as long with nothing worth to stir the mind. The life’s unanswered questions have lost all their attractiveness and one realises the futility of life. We came into it with nothing and we leave it with nothing … With aging, the taste for fighting is drastically weakened, with the depletion of the hormones and we become silent pacifists, trying to adjust ourselves to what is left.”Anonymous woman, age 90

Depression is a significant problem for many older Australians. This is not surprising when you consider some of the challenges faced by those of us in this age group. For many of us retirement brings new freedoms, time to do the things we’ve always wanted, or precious time with children and grandchildren. But it can also bring difficult changes. Transitioning to retired life can sometimes mean the loss of the fulfillment and status of our work identity. Other challenges can include poor physical health, grief and loss, or providing a caring role for others. Unfortunately, although many older Australians experience depression, relatively few seek help.

Why don’t more people receive help?

  • Sometimes we don’t realise that someone in later life is experiencing depression because the symptoms can be a little different. Older adults tend to have more physical symptoms of depression, such as low energy or aggravated aches and pains. Maybe you don’t feel ‘sad’ as such but you have a chronic lack of motivation and have stopped looking after yourself. Even though depression may look a little different, there are still treatments that can really help turn this around.
  • There’s sometimes a misconception that it is okay or normal for people in this age group to be depressed. Some people think it is just part of old age and must be endured.
  • Stigma is a big part of the reason why people don’t seek help. Many of us in the older generation have been taught to be stoic in the face of adversity and have been given the strong message that those who become depressed are somehow ‘lacking moral fibre’. As well as being untrue, these beliefs only make it more difficult for us to get the help we need.
  • Depression in older age can be really hard to talk about. It sometimes requires us to talk about taboo topics such as our own mortality. It can raise deep questions about the meaning and purpose of life. (For friends, family and health professionals: It can also be really difficult to sit with the suffering of someone who is facing health problems, loneliness or poor quality of life, because we feel so powerless. For these reasons we sometimes fail to reach out to older adults who experience depression.)

 Things you can do

  • The first step is to talk to your GP and describe what is happening to you. If you’ve got a good relationship with your GP, they will be able to give you a holistic approach to helping you with both your physical and mental health.
  • Get connected. This may mean contacting your local seniors club, or reconnecting with old friends. Isolation is one of the big issues for those of us in this age group and if you’re lacking in energy and motivation, or have difficulties with mobility, you may find it hard to seek out social contacts. However, people often find that when they force themselves to get involved it does improve their mood.
  • Be open to trying psychological treatment – there are therapies that are really effective in helping people to feel better. See here for more information about therapy.

For friends and family

Do you have an older friend or family member who you suspect might be experiencing depression? It can be difficult to know how to handle this, especially when you can see they need help but are unwilling to acknowledge it. Part of what we need to do for older friends and family is to give them the clear message that seeking and receiving help is not shameful and that we support them. Sometimes we need to offer help and support even when our loved one says emphatically, ‘I’m not depressed.’ Ways of helping include spending time with them, listening to them or doing activities together. And remember that comments about suicide should not be ignored. Take them seriously and help your loved one to discuss this with their doctor.

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