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Causes of Depression
Although winter is on its way out, continuing frigid temperatures, snow and shorter days can cause the blues if people can’t get out of their homes or if day after day it’s cold and gray. Some people suffer from post-holiday blues since their adult children left and contact is limited due to busy schedules.
There are many causes for depression, which affects about 6 million Americans age 65 and older. However, it’s important to differentiate clinical depression from normal sadness and grief. Generally, sadness is a temporary condition caused by a significant life change, such as a serious medical diagnosis, giving up the car keys or a death in the family, and is often alleviated as time passes and people adapt. This is not true of depression.
Beyond the wintertime blues, there are good reasons why seniors might experience depression. As you grow older, issues associated with aging can be difficult to deal with, including:
- Health problems such as serious or terminal illness, disability, cognitive decline and chronic or severe pain
- Loneliness and isolation due to loss of spouse, a dwindling social circle because of deaths and relocation or decreased mobility that results from illness or loss of driving privileges
- Reduced sense of purpose after retirement or due to functional limitations that curtail activities
- Fears and anxieties about dying, financial problems, health issues or issues affecting children or grandchildren.
Even prescription medications, including sleeping pills, tranquilizers, painkillers and blood pressure and arthritis drugs, can cause depression. If medicine is a factor, you or your family can speak with your health care provider to explore different medications/therapies.
Ways to Alleviate Depression
Upon diagnosis of depression, health care providers often prescribe antidepressant medications, most commonly selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac. While medication is one route, recent studies have found that SSRIs can cause rapid bone loss and a higher risk of fractures and falls. Likewise, “natural” alternatives such as St. John’s wort and SAMe are available; however, herbal supplements may interact.
Research is showing that, in many cases, healthy lifestyle changes, such as exercise, can be as effective as antidepressants in relieving depression, and without dangerous side effects. The following are some simple but effective ways that may help you get out of a funk.
Exercise. Physical activity has powerful mood-boosting effects, increasing feel-good chemicals called endorphins. You don’t need to run marathons to benefit; just walking around the neighborhood a few times a week can help. Even if you’re frail or disabled, many safe exercises from a chair or wheelchair can improve your mood.
Get support. Depression can be hard to beat on your own. Enlist the help and support of people around you, especially family and friends. Don’t be ashamed to admit you’re depressed or feeling blue. One of the most effective ways to deal with depression is to talk about it. If that’s not possible with those who are close to you, seek out a support group so you can connect with others going through the same challenges. It’s important not to close yourself off from the world because being alone with your own thoughts (often negative) will usually make the situation worse. Try to socialize as much as possible. Consider visiting your local church or joining a book or other social club.
Go online. Even if you can’t get out and meet people, research has shown that connecting with others via the Internet—whether through email, Facebook or other online access—can reduce depression in senior citizens.
Volunteer. If you don’t feel capable of reaching out to help others face-to-face, consider volunteering your time to sort groceries for the local food share operation or to organize books at the nearby library— something to get up, out and going. Your town’s humane society might need volunteers to walk dogs or visit with cats. Some research links being around pets to improved mood (see “Pet Therapy Barking Up the Right Tree,” Senior Spirit, Feb. 2014). By volunteering, you connect with something beyond yourself and boost your positive feelings.
Have fun. That may not sound easy when you’re depressed, so you might have to work at it. Plan activities you’ve enjoyed in the past, whether it’s going for a car ride, shopping or watching a favorite uplifting movie or TV show. Smiling and laughter may help cheer you up. If you have hobbies that bring you joy but that have fallen by the wayside, take them up again.
Be proactive. Feeling powerless is a sign of depression, and one way to overcome that feeling is by making choices, even if it’s something small like establishing a routine for the day; this can empower you because you’ve created structure in your life. Also, to feel a sense of accomplishment, set goals for yourself, even something as simple as cleaning out the closet. Having a sense of purpose in life is an indicator of positive mental health, and this becomes more important as people age. Add meaning to your life by visiting a lonely neighbor, praying for an ill friend or encouraging your neighbors to recycle more.
Eat healthy. There is no magic diet that fixes depression, but some evidence shows that foods with omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and tuna, and folic acid, such as spinach and avocado, help ease depression.
Get enough sleep. Not getting enough sleep can worsen depression. To achieve a good night’s rest, you might need to make some changes in your daily schedule. Experts advise going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. Try not to nap. Remove all distractions from your bedroom—no computer or TV. In time, you may find your sleep improves (see “Benefits of a Good Night’s Sleep,” Senior Spirit, March 2013).
Think positively. Negative thoughts often lead to more negative thoughts. One way to counteract this is to mentally list all the good things in your life, whether it’s the ability to see the sun rise every morning or enjoy a meal with a friend. Gratitude is one of the known ways to pull yourself out of a bad mood. Be grateful for what you have and what you can do and try to minimize what you don’t have or can’t do.
Try something new. As difficult as it might seem when you’re lacking energy, pushing yourself to do something different can help get you out of a rut. A change can start small, like making yourself something unusual for breakfast, taking an unfamiliar route to the grocery store or visiting a new restaurant. Learn a new skill, like drawing or playing the guitar.
“10 Natural Depression Treatments,” WebMD
“12 Depression Busters for Seniors,” Belief Net
“Depression and Diet,” WebMD
“Depression in the Elderly,” WebMD
“Depression in Older Adults & the Elderly,” Help Guide
“Depression in Seniors,” American Telemedicine Association
View this article in the April 2014 Senior Spirit newsletter.
Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors