How to Help an Elderly Person with Depression: Tips for Family Caregivers

Kendra could tell that her father was suffering. He’d dropped several pounds in the last few months, never changed out of his robe, and kept canceling their weekly lunch date at his favorite fish and chips restaurant. His once infectious energy and zest for life had all but disappeared, and she no longer recognized the man who stood before her.

How to Help an Elderly Person with DepressionKendra could tell that her father was suffering. He’d dropped several pounds in the last few months, never changed out of his robe, and kept canceling their weekly lunch date at his favorite fish and chips restaurant. His once infectious energy and zest for life had all but disappeared, and she no longer recognized the man who stood before her.
All she wanted was for her father to feel better, but Kendra didn’t know how to breach the subject of his mental health with him, or what kind of treatment he would be most receptive to. She felt stuck; she just wanted to help but didn’t know how.

Many family caregivers, like Kendra, feel powerless, because they don’t know how to help an elderly person with depression. While every situation is different, there are a few things to try that can really make a difference for them. For instance, employing techniques to help them engage more in their daily lives and working with them to find suitable treatment options are both key for their path to better mental health. Let’s look at some specific, simple things you can try to make their daily lives easier and discuss various treatment options that might be helpful.

How to Help an Elderly Person with Depression Engage

Disengagement is a very common symptom of depression. Whether it’s disengaging from one’s family and friends or disengaging from once-pleasurable activities like eating or exercising, it’s important for caregivers to have a toolkit of techniques to help your aging loved one engage again with their life and with others.
Below are a few things you can do to help your aging loved one re-establish connection and engagement in their life and make the tasks of daily living more enjoyable:
Stay calm: It’s natural that you are worried about your aging loved one’s mental health, but it’s important that you do your best to stay cool, calm, and collected when interacting with them. Being overly anxious, angry, or impatient will likely only make the situation worse for them and may even cause them to put up a barrier. Instead, encourage them to open up by engaging in compassionate conversation about what might be bothering them. Make it clear that you are there to listen, without judgment, to anything they want to share.
Create a support system: Loneliness is a major factor in depression among aging adults. Giving your loved one as much of your time and attention as possible can be really valuable for them. Working together with them, create a support system of family members and friends whose company they enjoy. Come up with a consistent schedule that connects them with these people on a regular basis.
For example, you could arrange for them to go with you to pick the kids up from school twice a week or encourage them to reach out to friends and make standing visits. Or, you could help them get involved in a Social Day program. While they may lack the motivation to make such arrangements on their own, with your help, they can start to combat loneliness and connect more with others.
Also keep in mind that there are resources available to help your aging loved one engage in conversation with others without leaving home. The Friendship Line is the only crisis line in the United States for people over 60 years of age and for adults living with disabilities. While the line is accredited as a suicide intervention line, it is also a “soft line,” meaning older adults seeking conversation and connection can call in to talk to a trained volunteer who specializes in having a warm conversation with olders adults who may be feeling depressed.
Help with meal prep: Loss of appetite is a common symptom of depression in aging adults, which can result in dramatic weight loss, muscle wasting, fatigue, and deteriorating health. This is why it is incredibly important that you help make sure they are getting proper nourishment. Together, prepare simple meals and snacks packed with nutrition and calories that they can consume even when they don’t feel like eating much.  
A few ideas include:

  • Healthy smoothies loaded with fruit, greens, yogurt, and protein powder.
  • Nourishing soups like split pea and ham, homemade chicken noodle, or roasted tomato.
  • Protein-packed egg salad that can quickly and easily be made into sandwiches.
  • Fiber-rich oatmeal cookies loaded with nuts, raisins, and flax seeds.

Gently suggest treatment options: It isn’t uncommon for some aging adults to feel resistance when it comes to getting treatment for their depression, but it is important that you present the idea to them gently. Depression sufferer and renowned mental health advocate Julie K. Hersh suggests that it can be helpful for you to connect the dots for your loved one about their symptoms and help them recognize that they might have a problem. Then, you can find the name and number of a reputable therapist or psychiatrist and help them make an appointment.

Treatment Options for Depression

Of course, when seeking mental health treatment, it is a good idea to inform your aging loved one of a variety of approaches and encourage them to make their own decisions about which treatment option is the best fit for them. Everyone is unique, so what has worked for one person may not work for another—especially because there is no single cause of depression.
You may have a good sense of which treatments will better suit your aging loved one, so it’s a good idea to research several methods and present them with a few to choose from, so as not to overwhelm them.
Below are some of the common and effective treatment options for older adults suffering from depression:

  • Talk therapy: Talk therapy with a therapist who specializes in aging adults’ mental health can be extremely effective in reducing depressive symptoms by allowing self-expression in a confidential and safe environment. There are several different kinds of talk therapy, from cognitive behavioral therapy to supportive therapy, so learning about the individual nuances of each may be helpful.
  • Medication: Antidepressant medication has been shown to be extremely effective in treating depression, even among aging adults. Essentially, they work to rebalance brain chemicals that affect mood, resulting in a decrease in depressive symptoms.
  • Art therapy: Art therapy has been shown to promote self-expression, facilitate positive communication and human connection, and stimulate cognitive function. Painting, pottery, and sculpting are few examples of activities that have therapeutic effects.
  • Pet therapy: Pet therapy has shown to be incredibly effective, especially among aging adults. Several studies have shown that regular contact with animals can improve depressive symptoms and even decrease blood pressure.

Often, a combination of treatment methods yields the best results. Medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, may be more effective together than each on their own. Typically, a therapist who works exclusively with aging adults will have a good sense of what combination of therapy is needed.
Of course, it is important to be aware that supporting your loved one in their journey towards better mental health can really take a toll on family caregivers. You, therefore, must be mindful that you don’t neglect your own needs as you try to help your aging loved one. Caregiver support groups and talk therapy can be very beneficial for you during this difficult time and could really help you be in a better position to help your loved one. And at the end of the day navigating this period with compassion and non-judgment for your loved one and yourself will make things much easier for the both of you.
At Institute on Aging, we offer a variety of valuable resources for aging adults, including in-home and outpatient psychotherapy, suicide prevention programs, and grief-related services. To find out more about how our services can help your aging loved one, contact us today.

Dr. Patrick Arbore

Dr. Patrick Arbore

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