Is depression a normal part of aging?

Understanding the warning signs of depression among seniors.

If you like to be treated with respect and kindness, make certain you are treating others the same way. If you are impatient in the presence of a pensioner, be careful because you too are destined to be a senior.

I wanted to write two parallel stories. One is a personal story about my father, and the other is a public observation about depression among the elderly in our community. The purpose of this article is to help us understand mental illness in older adults, with some tips on how to help them feel loved and cared for.

Before I do this I, wanted to share my views on being young.

I think that young people live in an illusive world filled with the fantasy that they will be the same age forever. In fact I was one to think I was going to feel 20 all my life because I thought I held the secret to feeling immortal.

What was this secret? To avoid what older people did, such as wearing elderly clothes, eating elderly food and, especially, thinking elderly thoughts.

Pretty contemptuous, right?

Let’s forward to today. Being middle-aged is a blessing. If I am disciplined with my life, I will continue to feel energetic as far as my genetic make-up will allow me. One striking difference between being 20 and being middle-aged is that I am more aware of my mortality. Therefore I am more quality-time sensitive.

Now let me write about my father.

My father received news of his son’s death at a vulnerable time in his life. My father was 80 years old when he heard of my brother’s overdose.

He was already dealing with the obstacles of aging — its health challenges and facing his own mortality and then, he had to bear the weight of burying his child.

It has been over a year and my father is not handling this hardship well. He is trying. He is lucky to have a loving family and caring customers who support him. Otherwise he could very easily slide downhill and into a depression.

Other seniors are not so lucky.

Now before I write about depression in the senior community, I wanted to show you an interesting list.

According to the latest 2017 Canadian Statistics there were 36,708,100 people living in Canada. The ranking group populations per age-decade are as follows:

  1. Ages 50–60 at 5,323,700
  2. Ages 30–40 at 5,059,800
  3. Ages 20–30 at 5,050,700
  4. Ages 40–50 at 4,770,200
  5. Ages 60–70 at 4,371,700
  6. Ages 10–20 at 3,977,300
  7. Ages 1–10 at 3,956,100
  8. Ages 70–80 at 2,625,100
  9. Ages 80–90 at 1,267,600
  10. Ages 90 and up at 305,700.

If we crunch some numbers, older adults over 60 (8,570,100) were more numerous than Canadians under 20 (7,933,400)— a milestone in the country’s history because this is the first time in the history of Canada this has happened.

Now let’s take a look at a 2016 list of reported depressions among Canadians by age and gender.

In 2014 there were 2,346,244 reported cases of depression among Canadians. Males were at 885,907 and females were at 1,460,337. For those 65 years and older there were 327,218 depressed, with males at 119,307 and females at 206, 910.

With 10 to 15 percent of seniors suffering from depression, this news is very concerning.

Now back to my father and how he can be one of the victims of depression.

A number of my dad’s friends and family members have passed away within the last decade. At family events and social gatherings he is usually the oldest person in the room. I know this makes him feel uncomfortable because he does not talk much. I suspect he feels invisible.

It pains me to see our culture ignoring seniors. Stigmatizing aging, when every single person on this planet will grow old, is an irony.

Over the years, dad’s health deteriorated, his role in the family hierarchy got demoted, and relationships with his family faded. Now with the unexpected death of his son, the stress has only gotten worse. These factors contribute to his prolonged melancholic moods.

His desire to live a joyous life has been reduced. He does not want to travel. Socializing with people has lost its charm and opening up to his family requires much effort.

Is he depressed? If so, is he embarrassed to admit it? And if so, is it because of stigma?

You see, I used to think depression could be turned off. I thought with simple willpower, anyone could change their mood. I thought I was curing someone by just listening to their problems and giving them empathetic advice. Little did I know that after listening to them for an hour or two, depression just continued because its power over their mind sucked them back in a dark hole. I have learned that depression is a serious illness that needs real treatment — especially among the elderly who are already vulnerable.

A top rated senior blog called Comfort Keepers states that depression among older adults is not a normal part of aging. It also explains that depression in seniors is associated with an increased risk of cardiac diseases and an increased risk of death from illness.

While depression is more common in women, it often increases the risk of suicide in older men. The suicide rate in people ages 80 to 84 is more than twice that of the general population. That’s why the National Institute of Mental Health considers depression in people age 65 and older to be a major public health problem.

Here are some signs that our senior parents, grandparents or friends may be suffering:

  1. Sudden mood changes.
  2. Loss of pride in their personal appearance. Not taking care of their hair, their hygiene, or clothes.
  3. Social withdrawal.
  4. Increased pain. Depression amplifies physical pain.
  5. Recent illness or surgery. Research shows that 15 percent of people who are discharged from a hospital leave with depressive symptoms.
  6. Recent loss.
  7. Insomnia.

If dad is harboring distress, like many pensioners do, it might be because he is experiencing two stigmas. One of being a senior citizen, and the other of maybe living with depression. His pride does not allow him to reach out for help. This prolongs the issue and it may escalate to physical illness. His blood sugar level has already been high for years and he takes medication for this. But the stress of sorrow is competing with the medications. It is a constant battle.

Three solutions that may help us to help the seniors in our lives:

  1. Make time to spend with our elderly people. We should remember that we too will be senior citizens. It will not be for one day. It will be for the last years of our lives. We could be living as a pensioners for up to ten or twenty years! It’s also important to let our elderly people understand our boundaries because we have busy lives. I used to ignore older adults completely because I would lose control of my time when I was with them. I then learned to declare my limits and now, they respect the time I spend with them. It is a win-win situation.
  2. Help your elderly loved ones make lifestyle changes. For example my father and I exercise twice a week. We go running up stairs or exercise in his home. We spend quality time together, catch up on life and exchange life-lessons. Also, compassionately try to understand their depression without judgement. The removal of shame will open their minds to seek professional help.
  3. We can promote a good old fashion lifestyle by encouraging them to eat healthy, reduce or eliminate smoking and alcohol, and being physically active. Spending time with family and friends or having pets would keep them socially active.

In conclusion I wanted to share a short story about a special man I knew.

A few years ago, I was working in retail and one of my customers was an elderly man. He was very sweet and kind. We would see each other once a week and talk about life. He shared stories about where he came from and about his family. I talked about my work and my future plans. When I asked about his wife, he sadly looked into the distance and with a changed tone in his voice he said she passed away a year ago. I observed his head lowering slowly. I felt his vulnerability and was moved. He then continued to say how he did not know how he could continue living without her. I asked if he had children and grandchildren. With a smile and a happier tone of his voice he said he did but that they were busy. As we said good-bye and parted ways, I curiously watched him walking among the crowded store. People were hustling past him rushing towards their appointments. My friend was slowly dragging his heavy feet across the room aimlessly with his head tilted to one side. His frail body contrasted the vibrancy surrounding him. The noise of children, young families and friends drowned his identity. He looked like he was resigning towards the end of his life, with a bit hopelessness and melancholy. It was so hard to watch and I asked myself, what does this mean? Is this where we all end up? Shouldn’t the end of our journey be the happiest? The most peaceful? The most full-filling? Or is life a big betrayal? Starting with our best years in the beginning and our worst in the end.
It got me thinking about how I can prevent myself from loneliness and illness in my later years. It forced me to look at my life today and make some changes that could help me experience happier senior years.

Thank you for taking the time to read my article. If you enjoyed it, you may like Ageism: right up there with racism and sexism?

A generous applause would be appreciated as it would help me build a community that will soon see my first service product. Most health and wellness services have been catering to a young demographic audience. I want to create a special service for one of the largest age groups in Canada that will offer the widest selection of information, with innovative ways on how to experience life with a deeper purpose and live a thriving long life.

Please stay tuned and I promise I will deliver.

Sia

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