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4 Tips to Help an Older Adult Stave Off Depression

By Kristen HicksDecember 10, 2018
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Many of the symptoms that come along with aging can contribute to a person experiencing depression, which makes it an upsettingly common issue that our parents and senior loved ones face.

Read our tips to help a senior loved one avoid depression during this time.

4 Ways to Help an Older Adult Stave Off Depression

Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD, says, “I have worked with seniors who are depressed and what I consistently see is that old age is a time of consolidation and reflection in people’s lives.” She adds, “It can also be a time of grief and loneliness, losing friends to death or infirmity and becoming more isolated.”

“Add to that their own physical condition, which sometimes deteriorates as they age, and perhaps chronic illness or pain. There are many things that contribute to elderly depression.”

Making matters worse, many seniors today grew up in a culture that stigmatized mental illness, which makes them less comfortable admitting when they experience depression and taking steps to do something about it.

For family members wanting to proactively help their parents and senior loved ones avoid depression, psychology experts say there are a few things that you can do to help:

1. Encourage social connections.

This is one of the most common pieces of advice experts offer.

“One major sign of depression in the elderly is isolation,” Dr. Reshmi Saranga, Founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry, says. “You can help by encouraging them to socialize. Make plans to do something with them even if it’s just to have a cup of coffee or watch a movie together.”

Raffi Bilek, Director of the Baltimore Therapy Center, suggests helping them connect with communities beyond family as well. “This might mean… interest groups like book clubs or exercise classes, senior events designed to keep seniors active or visits with extended family.” This can help them tap into a larger community and potentially take some of the pressure off the shoulders of family caregivers.

Help your loved one find some activities in their area to start participating in. Something that meets regularly is ideal, so they have a standing date with the community and get the chance to develop friendships.

2. Help them find purpose.

After retirement, many seniors may start to feel like the main responsibilities they had in life are gone. If they don’t replace them with something new as they age, they risk feeling like their life has no real purpose.

Larsen has seen multiple examples of seniors who fought off depression by finding a way to bring meaning into their lives.

“I have had clients who were depressed elderly people volunteer at animal shelters, hospitals and other places and it helped them see that they were not the only people (or creatures) who were disadvantaged or in need of help,” she says.

Helping your loved one find a meaningful way to give back to the community or support a cause they care about can make a big difference to how useful and fulfilled they feel.

3. Help them stay active.

Adding to the long list of reasons to include regular exercise in your life is this: it can help stave off depression.

“Working the body physically helps release feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin that can naturally lift the mood without the use of medications,” says Susan London, Director of Social Work at Shore View Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

While seniors have to be careful not to tackle exercises that can cause injuries, your loved one’s doctor should be able to recommend some safe workouts they can make part of their daily routine to avoid depression.

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4. Make sure they get alone time.

While loneliness is one of the most common causes associated with senior depression, Dr. Laura F. Dabney brought up a less intuitive issue. In addition to having opportunities to spend time with others, she stresses the importance of seniors being able to spend time alone.

“The emotionally healthy can move back and forth between being with others and being alone as needed,” she says. In addition to feeling free to move toward others when they need company, she says it’s important that “when one craves solitude they can move away from others.”

In your eagerness to help your loved one stay social, make sure you don’t go too far in the other direction and keep them from getting the alone time they need.

What to Do If Your Parent or Senior Loved One Is Depressed

While prevention is best, many families won’t know to recognize a problem until their parent or senior loved one is already experiencing depression. At that point, it may be harder to convince them to try some of the tips above.

At that point, Larsen recommends “getting them to see a medical doctor or mental health professional, as well as start an exercise program and a social way to be of service.” Getting professional help is key here, trained therapists and psychologists have strategies for helping people overcome depression.

While they may be reluctant to try an exercise program or social commitment, she suggests “it might help to appeal to one of their self-perceived strengths, like being helpful or independent, and frame these activities or tasks as demonstrating the strength.”

London suggests a less conventional method of helping them overcome depression. “Teaching them how to navigate a social website may help them to reconnect with family members and old friends while opening the door to them potentially making new friends.”

Nobody should have to accept depression as a part of their life. Try to do what you can to help your parent or senior loved one avoid dealing with depression, but if you do notice their habits and mood changing, help them take the necessary steps above to overcome it.

What other suggestions do you have to help older loved ones stave off depression? We’d like to hear your tips in the comments below.

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Kristen Hicks