As the human lifespan grows, many people are now living well into their eighties and nineties. That’s wonderful news, but it comes with new challenges. One of them is the challenge of addressing mental health issues in our aging parents.
Depression is frequent among older adults. The rate of depression in persons over age 65 varies depending on the person’s overall health and living situation, but it can be as high as about 27% (Cswe.org, 2015).
What Causes Aging-Related Depression?
Several factors can contribute to depression in older adults, including:
- Preexisting depression: If you have a parent who has struggled with depression at different points in his or her life, it is more likely to recur as he or she ages. People with untreated depression in the past might have poor life coping skills and a tendency toward negative thinking. As they face the challenges of aging, it may be more difficult to maintain a positive outlook.
- Preexisting anxiety: Individuals with a history of anxiety often become more fearful as they age. (Many individuals become fearful as they age, but this tends to be more pronounced in those with a history of anxiety and worry.) As a result, they often isolate. They don’t go out often and rarely make new friends or participate in social activities. This can lead to depression.
- Difficulty with life review: One of the tasks of healthy aging is to review one’s life, feel proud of the positive contributions, forgive oneself for mistakes, and let go of resentments toward others. Some people have difficulty reviewing their lives. They may get stuck on one or more aspects and dwell. For example, someone may feel he or she did not accomplish enough or continue to hold anger and resentment toward a sibling. All that unfinished business becomes emotionally toxic and may block the person’s ability to feel joyful and at peace.
- Friends and family dying: There was a two-year period in the life of my in-laws (who are in their late eighties) where every time I spoke to them on the phone, they had a death to talk about. This is a unique reality of aging: your friends start to die, one by one. There isn’t always time to properly grieve, and it can lead to feelings that the world is not a happy place anymore. In addition, the death of a spouse or partner is often a huge emotional shock that can lead to overwhelming sadness and confusion. Many older adults wonder what will happen to them without their spouse or partner. The fear and sadness can amplify each other.
- Declining abilities: It’s both frustrating and frightening to realize that you are no longer able to do the things you once did. It’s also a reminder that the end of life is nearer. Many people react to that by clinging to independence rather than by asking for or accepting help. In some cases, declining abilities can lead to isolation, a sense of being useless, and feelings of depression.
For many aging adults, the world can seem like an increasingly confusing place. There are always new technologies and new ways of doing things. Feeling unsure of themselves, older adults may become stubborn and cling to the things they know and are more comfortable with. Keep in mind that for many in this generation, psychotherapy and mental health treatment may not be seen in a positive light, having been stigmatized throughout their lives. Thus, suggesting therapy may seem extreme or even insulting to an aging person, even if he or she would clearly benefit.
How to Support a Depressed Parent
- Respect his or her need for independence, and don’t try to take control.
- Offer love and support; just letting him or her know you care and are available is enough. For many people (young and older), admitting that they are depressed is difficult.
- Delicately suggest one or two visits with a therapist who is experienced in geriatric issues, then leave it up to your parent whether to continue.
- Talk about a friend or someone you know who experienced a time of depression and then recovered. Gently suggest that perhaps it is similarly possible for your parent to improve his or her mood and sense of happiness.
- Learn active listening and empathy skills and become a good listener, without judgment or advice.
Is Medication a Good Option?
Sometimes, medication can be a good option for older persons, and sometimes it can make things worse by affecting cognitive function. It’s important to get a thorough evaluation by a qualified mental health professional who is trained in a variety of treatment approaches.
Watching an aging parent give up and not take good care of himself or herself can be heartbreaking and frustrating. It’s natural to want to insist that your parent get help, but being overly pushy can make things worse. A gentle approach that respects your parent as a competent adult is often the best bet.
Gellis, Z. D., & McCracken, S. G. (2015). Mental Health and Older Adults – Chapter 3: Depressive Disorders in Older Adults. Council on Social Work Education. Retrieved from http://www.cswe.org/File.aspx?id=23509
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