If you are caring for a loved one who has depression, please be aware that depression in the elderly population is a problem that has largely been overlooked and neglected in the mainstream media. Many old people, through the desire to prevent being a burden or being associated with weakness, will hesitate if not overtly avoid expressing their feelings of depression. This makes seeing, diagnosing and caring for our seniors with depression a sizeable challenge. In caring for some of our most vulnerable loved ones, patience, strategy and perseverance will be needed, from aged care workers to family members.
If you are caring for a loved one who has depression, here are some gentle approaches that can be used.
It’s easy to dismiss signs your loved one is presenting, as normal sadness or discontent at the changes in their life, but it is vital to keep watching, giving weight to certain changes. If your parent isn’t eating over a period of a couple days or is unwilling to engage in an activity that they previously loved this could very likely stem from depression.
Kathleen Buckwalter, a professor of gerontological nursing at the University of Iowa says that “The elderly are less likely to cope with loss as well as young people because of the added years of meaning behind it.” So much is and has changed for your loved one, from not being able to drive their favourite routes to cook their special scones. Paying for taxis and bringing treats is unlikely to cover that loss. Spend time listening to why, how and where it hurts. Through listening you are able to give a quiet dignity to their pain, a deep show of support and care.
It’s highly unlikely that your senior loved will overtly say “I’m sad” or “I’m very lonely”. Dr Steim says older adults will usually shy away from these statements in a desire to not be a burden. He says they are much more likely to display signs of depression through excessive wringing of hands, becoming quickly agitated and irritated or having difficulty remaining still. Look out for swings in mood, inclination or disinclination to do favourite activities or excessive stillness.
It can be overwhelming or affronting to a senior loved one if you engage in the discussion about their struggle by using the overt terms of ‘depression’, ‘therapy’ and ‘drugs’. If they insist they aren’t struggling with their feelings or mood, listen out for other difficulties like insomnia or loss of appetite. These can be openings in which to gently start the discussion of how they are feeling or coping.
When you aren’t suffering from depression it can be very difficult to put yourself in their shoes. Spend time seeking out expert and full information on the illness from medical sources and friends/family that are willing to open up about their struggle. A grievous approach to helping a loved one with depression is to tell them to ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’ or to belittle their struggle in any way. It is a very real and significant factor in a person’s life.
Allow your elderly loved one to do as much for themselves as they can. Many elderly people struggle with their new lives of limited independence and mobility. These factors can be large triggers for depression. Assist your loved one in breaking down tasks into bite-sized segments and praise them for these accomplishments.
There is still a stigma against mental health, therapy and needing it. Give them time to process the opportunity of therapy. Offer to come into counselling sessions with your loved one. Start the conversation with an openness towards therapy yourself and the fact that thousands of people all across the world go to therapy, find it very helpful and have found real comfort from it.
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