Darker Days May Bring Depression

Sad senior woman

The holidays are over and some of us may feel a sense of letdown once family has dispersed and the festive lights are put away. The end of the busy, bustling days can leave us feeling morose. And it doesn't help that January days offer reduced hours of mood-boosting sunlight.

Some people who regularly experience feelings of sadness and anxiety during the winter months are diagnosed with a particular type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Geriatricians say seniors are more susceptible to this wintertime depression, as well as to depression of every type.

This is partly due to the common circumstances of aging, such as the loss of our spouse or other dear ones, decreased ability to get out and about, or loss of the context that was offered by our paid job. Health conditions such as heart disease, vision loss, mobility problems, chronic pain, and even the normal brain changes associated with aging likewise increase the risk of depression. Some medications or combinations of medications raise the risk, as well.

If you or a senior loved one is experiencing persistent sadness, anxiety, lack of energy and a loss of interest in things that are usually pleasurable, it's important to report this to the doctor. Geriatrics experts remind us that depression is not "just a normal part of aging." It is a treatable medical condition, like diabetes, heart disease or hypertension.

A Variety of Treatment Options

Treatment for depression usually consists of some sort of psychotherapy, lifestyle changes and/or medications. Sometimes treating certain underlying health conditions, such as thyroid problems or a vitamin deficiency, is what's needed. Often a combination of treatments is the most effective. No matter what a patient's age, it's important to identify the best plan of care.

Medications can help restore the balance of chemicals in the brain and, properly prescribed and used, can be very effective. However, some people are under the impression that medication is the only treatment for depression. University of Michigan researchers recently reported that seniors in particular may be missing out on other options. In a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, the researchers cautioned that some doctors may be relying too heavily on the use of antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications to treat older adults with depression, and fail to prescribe counseling or therapy.

Dr. Donovan Maust, the geriatric psychiatrist who led the study, says that while these drugs are relatively safe for younger people, they can have negative side effects for seniors, especially those who are already taking drugs for other conditions. And yet, reports Dr. Maust, "Our findings suggest that psychotropic medication use is widespread among older adults in outpatient care, at a far higher rate than among younger patients." He adds, "In many cases, especially for milder depression and anxiety, the safer treatment for older adults who are already taking multiple medications for other conditions might be more therapy-oriented, but very few older adults receive this sort of care."

The National Institute on Aging agrees that while sometimes medications are the best choice of treatment for older adults, it's important to investigate the benefits of counseling, support groups, regular exercise, spending more time with others, and improved nutrition (research shows cutting down on refined carbohydrates may be an especially good choice). For seasonal affective disorder, light therapy also may be helpful.

Some seniors have a generational attitude of keeping one's problems to oneself that makes them less likely to seek counseling. Self-sufficiency is a good thing, but if it keeps a person from getting the help they need, it is a misplaced virtue! Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Home care can help.

Senior woman with in-home caregiver

Professional in-home caregivers are an important ally for treating depression in senior clients. They help clients follow the healthcare provider's recommendations by:

  • preparing recommended meals.
  • accompanying clients on mood-boosting outings.
  • providing supervision for exercise.
  • picking up prescriptions, providing medication reminders, and reporting changes in physical and mental status.
  • transporting clients to appointments with the doctor or mental health professional.
  • helping clients avoid isolation and loneliness by providing companionship and activities in the home.

An important note: The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. If you or a senior loved one is experiencing symptoms of depression, discuss this with your doctor. If you are already being treated for depression, do not make any changes in the way you follow your doctor's recommendations without discussing this with the doctor.

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.