Recognizing depression is the first step

Let me begin with the assertion that depression is not a normal or necessary part of aging. For most seniors, especially those who are active — physically, mentally and socially — depression is likely not an issue. But for those who do struggle with bouts of depression, there is probably nothing more debilitating and corrosive to the human spirit. Left alone, depression not only prevents older adults from enjoying life like they could, it also takes a heavy toll on their health and family.

In today’s column, I want to help identify the causes and risk factors that contribute to depression, as well as offer some tips for overcoming this malaise. In next month’s column, we’ll focus on the equally important consideration of taking care of you, while supporting a loved one struggling with depression.

If you have depression or know someone who does, you and they are not alone. According to the National Institutes of Health, of the 35 million Americans age 65 or older, “about 2 million suffer from full-blown depression” and another “5 million suffer from less severe forms of the illness.”

Unfortunately, while depression in the elderly is a common problem, only a small percentage gets the help they need. This may be due to an assumption the senior has good reason to be “down,” or that depression is simply a part of the aging process. Sadly, older adults are often isolated, with few around to notice their distress. And even physicians are more likely to ignore depression in older patients, concentrating instead on physical complaints. In the end, many depressed seniors are simply reluctant to talk about their feelings or ask for help. And, of course, the consequences of this oversight are high.

As you might imagine, untreated depression poses serious risks for older adults, including illness, alcohol and prescription drug abuse, a higher mortality rate and even suicide. So it’s important to watch for the risk factors and warning signs, and seek professional help when you recognize it.

Risk factors and warning signs (BOLD)

According to HELPGUIDE.org, “Many elderly adults face significant life changes and stressors that put them at risk for depression. Those at the highest risk include older adults with a personal or family history of depression, failing health, substance abuse problems or inadequate social support.”

You need to be especially aware of the following conditions: 1) Loneliness and isolation due to living alone, illness, decreased mobility, or a dwindling social circle of friends. 2) Reduced sense of purpose usually associated with a loss of identity due to retirement or physical limitations on activities. 3) Health problems manifesting chronic or severe pain; cognitive decline; or disfiguring surgery or illness. 4) Medications that can trigger or exacerbate depression. 5) Fears of death or dying, as well as financial and health problems. 6) Recent bereavement due to the death of a spouse or partner, loved one, friend or even a pet.

By the way, although a grieving person may experience a number of depressive symptoms such as frequent crying and profound sadness, grief is a natural and healthy response to bereavement. There is a difference, however, between a normal grief reaction and one that is disabling or unrelenting. While there’s no set timetable for grieving, if it doesn’t let up over time – it may be depression.

So what are the “warning signs”? Although the following characteristics may not individually be an indication of depression, when you see several of these manifesting themselves, be alert to the danger: sadness, fatigue, abandoning or losing interest in hobbies or other pleasurable pastimes, social withdrawal and isolation, weight loss or loss of appetite, sleep disturbances (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, oversleeping or daytime sleepiness), loss of self-worth, increased use of alcohol or other drugs, fixation on death or suicidal thoughts, anxiety or irritability.

Tips for overcoming depression (BOLD)

If you’re depressed, you may not want to do anything or see anybody. But isolation and inactivity only make depression worse. The more active you are physically, mentally and socially, the better you’ll feel. In a real sense, combating and preventing depression requires choices and a recognition the ball is in your court. So here’s what you can do: 1) Get out into the world and try not to stay cooped up at home all day. 2) Connect with others — limit the time you’re alone. 3) Volunteer your time —helping others is one of the best ways to feel better. 4) Take care of a pet or get a pet to keep you company. 5) Maintain a healthy diet — avoid eating too much sugar and junk food. 6) Exercise — even if you’re ill, frail or disabled, there are many safe exercises you can do to build your strength and boost your mood.

Now let’s go and enjoy life!

Carl R. Johnson is the community relations director at Abiding HomeCare in Silverdale. He appears the last Friday of the month in the CK Reporter.

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