October Is Depression Awareness Month

Sad senior man on bench with dog

The leaves are falling, and so are Dad's spirits. He hasn't been watching his favorite football teams this year. He's lost his appetite. And he doesn't even seem to take much pleasure in walking his beloved dog Sammy.

Which disease is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide? Did you guess heart disease, dementia or arthritis? You might be surprised that the World Health Organization (WHO) names depression as the No. 1 cause!

Depression is a common and serious mood disorder that results from a chemical imbalance in the brain, which affects the way a person feels, thinks and acts. According to WHO, more than 300 million people worldwide are living with depression — and many of them are older adults.

Seniors are at higher risk of depression in part because the underlying brain changes that cause it are more common as we grow older. Other risk factors include poor health, inactivity, chronic pain, sensory loss, loneliness and isolation, and stressful life changes such as the loss of a spouse. Certain medications also can cause low mood.

If depression persists for more than a few weeks, it can cause far more than just a low mood. It raises the risk of other serious health problems. Consider these two recent studies:

  • Research from Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City showed that among patients with coronary heart disease, depression doubles the risk of early death, and is even the top predictor of death in this patient group. "Heart disease and depression have a two-way relationship," reported the research team.
  • The relationship between dementia and depression is another two-way street. While depression may be caused by memory loss, on its own it raises the risk of Alzheimer's and other dementias. "Inflammation of the brain tissue that occurs when a person is depressed might impact the risk of dementia," explained University of Massachusetts Medical School researcher Jane Saczynski, Ph.D. "Certain proteins found in the brain that increase with depression may also increase the risk. Several lifestyle factors related to long-term depression, such as diet and the amount of exercise and social time a person engages in, could also affect whether they develop dementia."

Depression also raises the risk of diabetes, stroke, hypertension, sleep disorders and infection — and, in turn, makes it harder to manage those conditions. Depression also is linked with substance abuse and suicide risk.

Be alert for the signs

Here are some of the common signals that a senior may be experiencing depression:

  • Persistent sadness, feelings of hopelessness.
  • A sense of worthlessness.
  • Loss of interest in things they once enjoyed.
  • Irritability, anxiety, restlessness.
  • Fatigue, slow movements, loss of energy.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • A change in appetite.
  • Substance abuse — drinking too much, smoking more, using dangerous drugs.

If you notice these symptoms in a senior loved one, don't ignore the problem. Talk about it. Though older adults are more likely to experience depression, they are less likely to report it to the doctor. This is too bad, because depression is treatable. It is not "just a normal part of growing older," as many people think.

Depression can be treated

The first step is to seek a thorough evaluation from the doctor. Appropriate treatment might include antidepressant medications, psychotherapy and beneficial lifestyle changes.

It's important to follow the healthcare provider's instructions, but this can be difficult for seniors who are living with mobility challenges or other health problems. If your family uses professional in-home care, the caregiver can provide support in several ways:

Assistance with managing healthcare appointments and counseling sessions, and everyday health reminders. Treatment for depression can involve a number of doctor appointments and counseling sessions. Caregivers help clients keep track of these appointments, and can provide transportation and assistance as needed. They also can provide everyday health reminders, pick up prescriptions, take clients to the pharmacy, and report medication side effects, which is especially important as a client is adjusting to a new medication.

Personal care. We feel so much better when we're clean and well groomed! Caregivers help clients with bathing, dressing and incontinence care. And many seniors experience an enhanced sense of dignity when assistance is provided by a professional rather than by their spouse, children or other family members. Preserving self-esteem in this way is a real mood booster.

Help around the house … including the kitchen. We also feel better when our surroundings are clean and in good order. In-home caregivers provide light housekeeping and laundry. And nutrition is another one of those two-way streets: A person with depression may not feel like cooking or even eating, and the resulting poor diet worsens depression. Caregivers can prepare delicious meals and snacks that meet the client's dietary needs.

Caregiver plays chess with client

Encouraging socialization. When seniors are dealing with disabilities and chronic illness, it's harder to remain socially connected with others — and that's a big factor in depression. Caregivers help break the cycle of disability, isolation and depression by providing transportation so clients can visit friends, attend their faith community, join a support group, or go wherever they like to spend time with others. Caregivers provide valuable companionship and human connection. Hire through an agency that can carefully match your loved one with a compatible caregiver.

Supporting physical activity. So many studies show that exercise is a key factor in depression busting! Yet seniors who are living with mobility, sensory or memory challenges may hesitate to exercise. Your loved one should ask the doctor to recommend an appropriate exercise program. The caregiver can support this routine, perhaps accompanying your loved one on walks, providing transportation to exercise class, or setting up an exercise video.

Helping preserve independence. The loss of physical and cognitive abilities can be a big factor in depression. The inability to do the things we once enjoyed, and to do them for ourselves, can cause our spirits to droop! A top goal of home care is to enable clients to face and overcome those challenges, to help them do the things they’ve always enjoyed, or to find new activities that provide a mood boost.

Next month: Can going on Facebook or other social media help seniors fight loneliness and depression? Find some insights in the November 2019 issue of the Caring Right at Home online newsletter!

For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.