by Allison Plunk, M.S.
According to a recent poll, about 7 million people over the age of 65 have been diagnosed with depression, and this staggering number is likely under-reported. People of all ages have been conditioned to minimize depression as though it’s a phase rather than a mood disorder, and this is especially true among aging parents.
It is, of course, part of the human experience to get sad from time to time. Grief and sadness are natural reactions to painful circumstances, like suffering a loss of some kind. However, it is not always a matter of just being sad. If your parent is acting significantly down for a long period of time, significantly gloomier, or lacking in energy or any semblance of joy, he or she might be clinically depressed.
The difference between mild, temporary episodes of sadness and clinical depression (also known as major depression and major depressive disorder) is in the severity and the persistence of the condition. If you suspect your parent is clinically depressed, you need to get them to a medical doctor or therapist. Individuals with clinical depression are often at a loss to understand their dark feelings — they see no reason or logic behind the gloom and yet they feel overwhelmed and virtually helpless within it.
Signs of clinical depression are persistently sad, anxious or “empty” feelings; difficulty with details and decisions; fatigue and loss of energy; feelings of inappropriate guilt and worthlessness; insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleeping); significant weight loss or gain, evidenced by overeating or loss of appetite; loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable; psychomotor agitation or retardation; and recurring thoughts of death or suicide. To meet the criteria for clinical depression, one must have five or more of the above symptoms over at least a two-week period.
If your parent is feeling blue as a result of a loss or other troubles, then most likely his or her depression is a normal reaction that will diminish naturally over time. However, there are ways you can help your parent move through this level of sadness.
Have a candid conversation and listen.
It’s important to have a candid conversation with your parent. Ask open-ended questions to get them talking. For example, you can say, “You seem to be feeling down. What’s going on?” The most important thing you can do for any depressed individual is listen and validate their feelings. Active listening and empathizing with the person are both key. Empathize with your parent by saying, “I can only imagine how you must feel.” In order to cope, your parent needs at least one significant person in his or her life with whom they can discuss their feelings, someone to confide in. Be that person for your parent and start by listening and validating their feelings.
Don’t rush your parent through the sadness or grieving process. Allow them the space and time to express themselves. Everyone experiences grief and depression differently. Generally speaking, anywhere between several weeks and one year is the normal grieving period when there has been an important loss, and routine depression should decline over that time. If their depression has not lessened after one year, a clinical intervention with a qualified therapist should be considered.
Do some research to discover what kind of programs the local senior center offers and encourage your parent to get involved. Socialization, discovering new activities and making new connections is definitely healing. It will help your parent start to realize that life can go on despite a loss or other hardships. There might be a senior support group that your parent can attend where he or she could spend time developing relationships with people who have undergone similar experiences. Volunteering is another great way for your parent to stay active and get reconnected with people. If spirituality is important to your parent, you can encourage them to attend church or synagogue to rediscover their faith and get involved in a community. Give your parent some time if they’re initially resistant to new activities. It is important that they find their own way, that they take charge of their lives, while you provide encouragement and support.
Try giving an uplifting book to read.
Your parent may prefer spending time alone rather than engaging in social activities. Not everyone wants to chat with strangers at a senior center. So give your parent an uplifting book if he or she enjoys reading. If your parent has trouble seeing, you can buy an audio version of the book. It may help them cope with depression, and it could also give the two of you something to discuss when you spend time together.
Depression affects all families, including my own. My 79-year-old grandmother, who lives in Dexter, MO, experiences depression from time to time, which she attributes to getting older. But she does find that reading a positive book takes some of the sadness away. “The life I knew is gone,” she told me. “Many of my friends and family have passed away or are not in good health, so it can be easy to experience loneliness. I try to fight it by reading books like the Bible or other uplifting books. I also like to sit in a swing in my backyard and just talk to God.”
Look for signs.
Another gentleman I know, a 79-year-old retired farmer, said he experienced nine months of severe depression after his wife of 50 years died suddenly. “I felt so hopeless, lonesome and depressed,” he said. “I was so ashamed that I could not take care of myself for the first time in my adult life. I did not want to tell my adult children about my depression because I was used to taking care of them, and I did not want them taking care of me. I hid it from them, and they had no idea how much pain, suffering and depression I was experiencing.”
There are countless stories similar to this one. It is imperative to look for warning signs if your parent has experienced a significant loss or major life change, because they might find it difficult to speak about their feelings and instead just end up hiding their pain from you.
Remember that you are not there to solve your parents’ problems or take away their pain, but you can help them find the resilience to cope with and hopefully solve their problems.
Allison Plunk is the Friendly Connections Coordinator at Family Centers, a private, non-profit organization offering education and human services to children, adults and families living in Lower Fairfield County, CT.
Thank you Helen Forsyth Richardson for the use of your photograph.