Depression in the Elderly

Is there anything I can do to help my aging mother when she gets blue and down in the dumps? She used to be a very positive person, but now she can barely speak to us when we visit her in the nursing home where she's been living for just over a year. Is depression a normal part of the aging process?

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Unfortunately, depression can be fairly common among people in your mother’s situation and stage of life. The Bible assures us again and again that the Lord is always at our side and that the joys of heaven await every Christian after death, yet depression is a very real problem for many people, including the elderly. As you know, life for an aging person is not easy. Physical incapacity, increasing dependency, chronic pain, loss, and fear of death may trigger the onset of clinical depression, a condition that goes beyond temporary sadness.

Depression is a disorder that affects thoughts, feelings, behavior, and physical health. A depressed person lives her life under a cloud. She may have trouble thinking clearly, cry for no apparent reason, or express vague complaints. She may have feelings of self-recrimination or unfounded guilt. She may say that she is tired of living because she is useless and forgotten. Depression in the elderly can also be characterized by memory problems, confusion, social withdrawal, loss of appetite, and even delusions and hallucinations.

Is this a “normal” part of aging? In a word, no. Depression should never be considered normal, not even late in life. It’s good that you’ve recognized these symptoms in your mother and that you’re actively seeking some way of confronting them. Generally speaking, older people are less likely than younger folks to seek help for themselves. Many of them grew up in a time when hard work was valued more than feelings and emotions were kept close to the vest. But stifled emotions can become toxic when they are allowed to fester inside. You’re on the right track, then, and we want to encourage you to help your mom address this problem.

What can you do? First, it is crucial to understand that certain medications can cause depression as a side effect. You should review your mother’s medications with her doctor or a psychiatrist to determine if anything she is taking might be causing her depression.

Next, come alongside your mother with prayer, encouragement from the Scriptures, and reminders of God’s unfailing love for her. Sit with her in her dark moments and tell her how much she means to you. Encourage her to reminisce about years gone by. Remembering events and people from the past can help draw her out of her depressed state. Get friends, neighbors and family members to pay her regular visits in the nursing home. Give her something to look forward to by including her in upcoming family gatherings and events. If she finds it helpful, talk about the realities of the heavenly kingdom and help her see the bigger picture – to understand that no matter what her age or physical condition, she still matters to you and to the Lord and has a role to play in His eternal plan.

Finally, realize that your mother’s depression can and should be treated. Engage the help of a professional. The sooner depression is addressed and treated, the less likely it is to become chronic. Although some older people distrust mental-health professionals, early therapeutic treatment is important to prevent further, more serious problems. Most people who are treated for depression, including seniors, show improvement within a few weeks.

The most common treatments for depression include antidepressant medications, counseling, or a combination of the two. Commonly prescribed antidepressants include fluoxetine (Prozac), venlafaxine (Effexor), citalopram (Celexa), zertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), and others. Mental-health professionals available for counseling include biblical counselors, pastors, psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers and licensed counselors. Focus on the Family’s Counseling Department can provide you with a list of qualified professionals practicing in the area of your mother’s retirement facility. Our staff would also be more than happy to discuss the details of her situation with you over the phone. Don’t hesitate to contact our counselors.

 

Resources
If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Caring for Your Aging Loved Ones

Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones

When Someone You Love Suffers from Depression or Mental Illness

Coping With Chronic Illness

Referrals
National Association of Area Agencies on Aging

Caregiver Action Network

Hart Institute

National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers

Articles

Caring for Ill or Aging Parents

Depression

Excerpted from The Complete Guide to Caring for Aging Loved Ones, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2002, Focus on the Family.

This information has been approved by the Physicians Resource Council of Focus on the Family.

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