Mental health is a growing concern in senior care. Fears about aging, loss of control, financial stress, health issues, and transitions in lifestyle all contribute to mental health issues, with elderly depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder among the most prevalent. These conditions lower quality of life for seniors, may have a detrimental effect on other chronic conditions, and are often a factor in cases of suicide; in fact, among all age groups, older men have the highest suicide rate. The burden of poor mental health, in addition to the graying of America, is shifting the focus of traditional health care to include mental health concerns.
Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on elderly mental health
Even as COVID has taken an extreme physical toll on older adults, it also continually impacts the mental health state of many seniors.
During the pandemic, three in 10 people aged 50 and older had not interacted with people outside their workplace or household for one to three months—a situation that’s contributed to creating a “loneliness epidemic.”
It doesn’t seem like the world can go back to “normal” any time soon. So, if you’re living with an aging parent, make sure to pay more attention to their mental well-being. And if you spot signs of depression, see a professional right away.
Causes of depression in elderly individuals
While depression can affect people of any age, its causes vary across the various age groups. In older adults, health problems are often the primary catalyst of depression.
Some long-term conditions, such as dementia, diabetes and stroke, are frequent causes of elderly depression. Other sources of depression or other mental health issues may include:
Some medications, such as sleeping pills, tranquilizers and high blood pressure drugs, can alter the chemicals in the brain, with depression as a common side effect.
2. Loneliness and isolation
Living alone, moving into a senior care facility, and dwindling social connections can spark feelings of loneliness, isolation and, ultimately, depression.
3. Fear of dying
Seniors may feel as if they have not accomplished any remarkable thing in life, or as if their lives have lost meaning. They may also be dealing with regrets over past choices. These thoughts and emotions, along with the fear of death, can be overwhelming and may lead to clinical depression.
4. Reduced sense of purpose
People who retire often lose their sense of identity, purpose, independence and means of financial security. Along with diminishing physical mobility, all these factors can result in elderly depression and unhappiness.
Retirement and elderly depression
Many older employees look forward to escaping the daily grind and to spending time on meaningful activities during retirement. Yet, they often experience a different reality after leaving the workplace.
People realize that leaving jobs means losing their source of income and adapting to an entirely new routine. (And many people also retire with debts.) These circumstances often induce stress and anxiety.
Other retirement concerns that can result in depression include:
- The anxiety of having more time but less money to spend
- Finding meaningful activities to do every day
- Difficulty to “switch off” work mode and slow down
- The loss of social interaction from co-workers
- The loss of identity
- Maintaining independence
- Loss of self-confidence (not being able to do impactful jobs anymore, which can degrade one’s self-esteem)
Symptoms of depression in elderly individuals
Indications of depression in older adults may include:
- Irritability, feeling down and sad
- Always feeling tired
- Trouble paying attention
- Reduced interest in hobbies and activities they used to enjoy
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and hopelessness
- Suicidal thoughts
A depressed loved one is at risk of developing cardiac diseases, and depression also reduces the body’s ability to rehabilitate—consequently increasing the probability of suicide.
If you recognize these signs of depression, visit a doctor for evaluation. Early treatment of depression is vital to prevent further complications.
Ways to improve elderly mental health
1. Embrace change
Retirement brings a new chapter in life. Rather than resisting these changes, help a loved one develop an optimistic mindset about the aging process. Thinking and feeling young is the best way to celebrate positive aging.
Retirement has its downsides, but it doesn’t mean your senior parent should stop doing the activities that are important to them.
2. Help set new goals and find a new purpose
Goals and purpose give your loved one a direction. Even if they stop being a teacher, doctor or an employee, creating new goals will open up new opportunities in their life. Help them see how they have already contributed by conducting a life review. Looking back on their accomplishments and the meaning they have already created can help them see new opportunities ahead.
3. Provide social and emotional support
Building meaningful social connections is important during retirement. Because many seniors aren’t as physically capable of engaging in travel or active programs, they may feel lonely and isolated.
Interaction opportunities begin at home. By asking your senior parent a starter question (such as, “How was your sleep?”), you encourage conversation. Motivate them to join virtual support groups or local retirement programs to improve their social and emotional connection with others.
4. Contribute as a volunteer
Seniors who are still fit may find fulfillment in volunteering. Possible options could be teaching arts, walking or running for a cause, and lending some help in doing administrative work in local organizations.
Management of elderly depression
Depression weakens your aging parent’s immune system and makes them vulnerable to other diseases. Here are some practical suggestions to combat elderly depression:
1. Adopt a relaxation practice
Meditation, tai chi and aromatherapy are just a few relaxation techniques to help your loved one stay mindful and reduce stress.
2. Physical exercises
Engaging in any form of physical activity can relieve tension and elevate mood.
3. Nature time
When an aging parent feels sad, a simple walk in a park or a quick trip to the beach can cheer them up.
4. Balanced diet
Keeping the body healthy by eating nutritious foods is one key to maintaining good brain health.
5. Adequate sleep
The lack of sleep causes stress, so make sure your senior parent gets enough rest. If they have trouble with their sleeping schedule, create a bedtime routine.
Factors like declining physical health, financial problems, health care cost and a decline in social connections can catapult depression in elderly individuals. All these problems may manifest as mental and physical illnesses in depressed senior individuals.
Sometimes, depression can appear as a subtle change in eating habits. Now that most seniors are cooped up indoors, you must pay extra attention to your loved one’s behavior. If you think they’re acting differently than usual, visit a mental health expert for assessment.