Holiday Blues – Depression in the Elderly

November 13, 2009
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The holiday season is quickly coming upon us. If you are a caregiver for an elderly loved one, you may notice a change in your loved one’s mood as the holidays approach. Perhaps you are one of many who during the holidays visit their elderly parents and family who live some distance away. When you visit, you may notice that loved ones are not as physically active as on prior visits, that they show symptoms of fatigue or sadness, or that they have no interest in the holiday or in their surroundings.
According to the National Institutes of Health, of the 35 million Americans age 65 years or older, about 2 million suffer from full-blown depression. Another 5 million suffer from less severe forms of the illness. This represents about 20% of the senior population – a significant proportion.
Depression in the elderly is difficult to diagnose and is frequently untreated. The symptoms may be confused with a medical illness, dementia, or malnutrition due to a poor diet. Many older people will not accept the idea that they have depression and refuse to seek treatment.
What causes depression in the elderly?
It is not the actual holiday that causes depression, but the fact that holidays tend to bring memories of earlier, perhaps happier, times. Additional contributing factors that bring on depression may be the loss of a spouse or close friend, or a move from a home to an assisted living facility, or a change in an older person’s routine.
Depression may also be a sign of a medical problem. Chronic pain or complications of an illness or memory loss can also cause depression. In addition, diet can be a factor when proper nutrition and vitamins are lacking.
As an example, Selma’s husband died a few months before Christmas. Her family lived close by and would often call or drop in to check on her. Selma seemed a little preoccupied and tired, but this was to be expected as she had been the caregiver for her husband for many years. When the family noticed that her holiday decorations were not out, and that she had abandoned her annual routine of sending Christmas cards, they began questioning her mental and physical well-being.
A trip to her physician confirmed depression, caused by not only the loss of her spouse, but also a vitamin B12 deficiency. There were both mental and physical reasons for her depression.
Symptoms to look for in depression might include:

  • Depressed or irritable mood
  • Feelings of worthlessness or sadness
  • Expressions of helplessness
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of interest in daily activities
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of attending to personal care and hygiene
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irresponsible behavior
  • Obsessive thoughts about death
  • Talk about suicide

How do you know if it is depression or dementia?
Depression and dementia share similar symptoms. A recent article on www.helpguide.orggives some specific differences:
In depression there is a rapid mental decline, but memory of time, date and awareness of the environment remains. Motor skills are slow, but normal in depression. Concern with concentration and worry about impaired memory may occur.
On the other hand, dementia symptoms reveal a slow mental decline with confusion and loss of recognizing familiar locations. Writing, speaking and motor skills are impaired, and memory loss is not acknowledged as being a problem by the person suffering dementia.
Whether it is depression or dementia, prompt treatment is recommended. A physical examination will help determine if there is a medical cause for the depression. A geriatric medical practitioner is skilled in diagnosing depression and illnesses in the elderly. If you are the caregiver of an elderly person, it may be beneficial for you to seek out a geriatric healthcare specialist. For more information on senior health services go towww.longtermcarelink.net/about_senior_health_services.htm.
Treating depression in older people.
Once the cause of the depression is identified, a treatment program can be implemented. Treatment may be as simple as relieving loneliness through visitations, outings and involvement in family activities. In more severe cases antidepressant drugs have been known to improve the quality of life in depressed elderly people. Cognitive therapy sessions with a counselor may also be effective.
As a caregiver or family member of a depressed elderly person, make it your responsibility to get involved. The elderly person generally denies any problems or may fear being mentally ill. You can make the difference and remove the Holiday Blues from seniors suffering from depression.
The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation offers a “Depression Tool Kit.” To read more about this tool kit and depression in the elderly, go towww.gmhfonline.org/gmhf/consumer/depression_toolkit.html.

Ask Allie

O&H:  Allie, we’ve heard about a unique “pet project” that raises funds for animal causes.  Please tell us about it.
Allie:   Sure! Dougal the dog from Stamford, England, and Romeo the cat from Charlotte, North Carolina, have Twitter accounts and host “pawparties” on Twitter to raise money. The families of Dougal and Romeo set a date and a cause each month, and the word spreads through social networking. The Twitter marathons last a full day so “pawtiers” can check in at their convenience. The first party on St. Patrick’s Day drew a crowd of dogs, cats, rabbits and even stuffed animals who toasted each other with barkertias, meowmosas and money. Trivia contests and scavenger hunts with prizes are a part of each event. The organizers use Web sites www.firstgiving.com and www.justgiving.com to take care of collecting Tweeted pledges and providing tax receipts to the donors. The average gift is approximately $1,000; Animals in Distress in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Kitten Rescue in Los Angeles, California, were among the first recipients of the pawparty funds. The charities are alternated in and outside of the United State. You can learn more about the pawparties atwww.romeothecat.com. What a great idea! Maybe I can participate in the next pawparty…. Better get my mom to set up a Twitter account for me!


Oast & Hook will hold its quarterly Social Workers and Administrators Breakfast on November 19th at the Russell Memorial Library, 2808 Taylor Road Chesapeake, Virginia. Registration beings at 9:15 a.m. and the presentation begins at 9:30 a.m.  Questions will be answered from 10:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. The breakfast is designed to be both a networking opportunity and also an educational opportunity for area professionals who work with seniors, the disabled, and their families.  Seats are limited, so please register early. To register for this breakfast, please phone Jennifer Lantz at 757-967-9724.

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