In an ideal world, our retirement years would be filled with good health, happiness and the time to do all the things we added to our so-called bucket list over the years.
Unfortunately, as we age we also suffer losses. The loss of loved ones, health and financial comfort can all leave us suffering and feeling alone. In some cases, this suffering can be so debilitating and lengthy that it is considered depression, and should be treated by a doctor or mental health therapist.
In this series by Executor.org, we look at issues and challenges that could be occurring in your parent's life that they are not telling you about and solutions to help manage these situations. As parents age, communication matters more than ever, and your ability to connect with your parents as they encounter new problems will be critical as your role in their lives evolves.
Depression is a terrible disease that can make a person feel worthless, hopeless and disinterested in life. It can cause sleep issues, changes in eating habits, digestive problems and persistent physical pain, such as body and muscle aches, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also can lead to thoughts of suicide or attempts - which too often are proving successful. According to a 2014 study by the World Health Organization, global suicide rates are highest among people aged 70 and older.
So what do you do if your parent is depressed? The following steps are a good place to start:
1. Educate yourself. With aging comes many changes that can make us feel terribly sad. We are more likely to lose our spouse or partner and loved ones who we have known and cherished for years. Sickness and disease become more common and can limit us physically and mentally. The financial stress of living on a fixed income can leave us feeling insecure about our future. In short, there are numerous reasons why we might not be our usual happy selves when we get older. At times, those around a depressed person can be frustrated, scared or just feel clueless as to what can be done. Perhaps we push our parent to "snap out of it." Or maybe we suggest things we think will cheer them up, such as taking a trip or joining a club. To a depressed person, these can seem like impossible and unrealistic suggestions. They also can make a depressed person feel more alone and as if no one understands what they are going through. Educating yourself about depression not only makes you better able to help your parent, but also more empathetic and compassionate toward them.
2. Don't accept depression as normal. Too often, depression in older people goes untreated, mental health experts say. Part of the problem is that depression in older people can look different than it does in young people, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). For example, chief complaints can be memory problems and vague mentions of pain and delusions, according to NAMI. Another issue is that many people - even doctors - dismiss the symptoms of depression as a normal part of aging and the mental, physical and social changes that come with it. Depression certainly can stem from many things - including trauma, grief, health issues, medications and life changes - but that doesn't mean it has to be accepted as the norm and taken in stride, according to NAMI. There are treatments - including medications and talk therapy - for people suffering from depression at any age and from any cause. No one needs to accept depression as a part of aging.
3. Get help. Depression can be a life-altering and debilitating disease. And beyond the mental suffering, it can put your parent and others at risk in other ways. Depression can make it difficult for your parent to properly care for themselves, such as eating well and taking medication as prescribed. It can slow reaction times, meaning everything from driving to cooking can have added risk. If you feel your parent is depressed, understand there are limits to what you can do to help them. Just like you probably wouldn't attempt to cure their diabetes or heart disease on your own, you shouldn't expect yourself to fix their depression. Talk to them about seeing a doctor, provide them with information on depression, and offer to go along to see a doctor or therapist with them, if you can. If you feel your parent is a danger to themselves or in crisis, it's important to take action immediately, according to NAMI. Call 911, take them directly to the emergency room for a mental health assessment, or call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Trained counselors are always available by calling the hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255); TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889).
Your awareness that depression is a common problem with aging adults is an important part of helping your parent. As with many issues your aging parent may be facing, open, honest dialogue is the best way to support them and encourage them to get the help they need.
Patrick O'Brien is CEO and co-founder of Executor.org, a comprehensive online resource that helps executors manage their responsibilities and duties in this complex role. The tool includes a helpful step-by-step interactive guide for executors and invaluable tips on everything from planning a funeral and keeping beneficiaries happy to dealing with grief and managing estate assets.
Check out the other articles in this Executor.org series: