When Eating Alone Leads to Elderly Depression

Lauren’s mom died in late summer, leaving her father a widower, and living alone for the first time since he got out of the Navy after Vietnam. In the first flow of grief and sympathy, relatives and friends brought over food, as people do. People from the church made casseroles. Soups and stews filled his fridge and freezer. But as the leaves began to fall, life intervened for most people, as it does. The food dwindled as the days grew shorter, and Lauren became more and more worried for her father.

I-Social-2Lauren’s mom died in late summer, leaving her father a widower, and living alone for the first time since he got out of the Navy after Vietnam. In the first flow of grief and sympathy, relatives and friends brought over food, as people do. People from the church made casseroles. Soups and stews filled his fridge and freezer. But as the leaves began to fall, life intervened for most people, as it does. The food dwindled as the days grew shorter, and Lauren became more and more worried for her father.

It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to cook. Quite the opposite: for as long as she could remember, her dad was the primary chef in the house. He loved it. He loved making food for people. But with her and her brothers long since moved out and his beloved wife gone, he had no one to cook for. No one to share the joy of a meal with. Lauren would bring over food as much as she could, afraid that her dad wouldn’t eat right otherwise. She was right in worrying. Suddenly being forced to eat alone is a major cause of senior depression, and her dad was particularly susceptible to it. She and her brothers had to come up with a plan to combat it, but first she had to show them that depression was different from just being sad.

A Table for One Goes Beyond Grief

It is normal and healthy for our aging loved ones to feel grief after the death of a loved one. This grief can go on a long time, and can often manifest itself as clinical depression. Many people whose lives are turned upside down by death (even when it is not unexpected) find themselves unmoored and unsure of themselves.
This normal grief and potential depression that comes from loss can be magnified by suddenly eating alone. Indeed, a recent Japanese study showed that older adults who were eating alone after a long period of cohabitation were more than twice as likely to suffer from depression as those who have been eating alone for years. This study controlled for economic status and other factors, and still came up with that same result.
Having to eat alone too often means eating unhealthily. One reason is that it is hard to cook for just one person—most meal plans are made for multiple people, and even if they are scaled down, it is harder to buy ingredients for one person, since most things at the grocery store tend to come in larger sizes. People aren’t going to buy fresh vegetables if most of them will go bad before they can be used.
But the other reason is that there is suddenly no one to cook for, and so eating healthy may seem pointless. The person with whom they have lived their lives, and with whom they have most likely shared the majority of their meals, is gone. It isn’t just the cooking; the process of eating suddenly seems nothing more than a grief magnifier. The table seems even more empty.
Meals, as one of the great Bay Area writers reminds us, are about the joyous sharing of life’s basics with other people. When there is no one to share it with, meals become just eating, and that can become a grim and utilitarian task. What people sit down to eat can dwindle down to nothing, and the resultant health issues compound the feeling of loss, of being unmoored, of a broken routine, and of loneliness. This is the spiral that can lead toward depression. It is important for loved ones to intervene and help.

How To Fight Elderly Depression in Your Aging Loved One

The first thing that Lauren realized she needed to do was to rally her family. They already visited their dad as much as possible, but now they tried to set up routines so that they each came over at least once a week, and especially during meals. Even if they spread out dinners, though, that didn’t cover every day of the week. Breakfasts, lunches, and some dinners were still eaten in the same solitude. There was more that they wanted to do.
They all had busy lives, and felt some guilt for that, but were all able to contribute more in their own way. Lauren was actually a master meal planner, and she found great resources for easy ways to cook a meal for one. She provided the shopping list to a brother, who made sure to pick up groceries for those meals, because even if their dad wasn’t motivated to go shopping himself, he wasn’t one to let food go to waste.
Balancing their tricky family dynamics and schedules meant that each sibling contributed what they could. Her other brother came over and cooked a few meals for the week. On Sundays he made a couple of casseroles, including a breakfast one, so that it wasn’t a problem for their dad to eat right, right away. The breakfast casserole was key, since mornings were the hardest, and that’s when their father had the least motivation to make something for himself (and also when it was hardest for any of the kids to get over there).
So that took care of having good food, but there was more: dealing with the actual sitting down and eating. This was the important part.
Lauren had to convince her dad to try a few new things. The problem was that eating alone—or not eating at all—had become his sad routine. So she came up with a program to help him no longer dread mealtime.

  • Varying eating location. The table seemed too empty when no one else was there. Lauren talked to her dad about starting to eat breakfast in the kitchen instead of the dining room, or on the porch when it was warm enough. This was something he had rarely done, but it made the meal different. It was less of a reminder, and instead created a new breakfast routine. This was an important step in dealing with his grief. It isn’t forgetting, but it is symbolic of forging ahead with a new chapter.
  • Going out to eat more often. There’s a weird stigma about going to a restaurant by yourself, and on the surface it might seem like it will trigger more memories. But while familiar locations might, going to a new place and trying new food can make eating seem fun and exciting again.
  • Calling friends and family more often. There is a strange phenomenon where we don’t want to burden people with our grief, and meanwhile those same people want to reach out, but don’t want to pressure us. Lauren recognized this happening with her father, as so many people would ask about her dad and say that they’d love to see him if he was up to it. So she made her dad call them, ask them over for dinner, get invited over, or go out together. That became a routine, and it led to…
  • Starting a meal club. Eventually, as Lauren’s dad saw people more and more, they decided to form a meal club, with weekly brunches at a favorite restaurant, and then rotating dinners at someone’s place once every week or two. It became something to look forward to, and when her dad’s turn to cook was coming up, he fretted and fussed excitedly about the meal all week, giving her and her brothers samples, his face lighting up with purpose.

Without realizing it, he had become excited by eating, excited by cooking, and excited about life. He would never stop grieving for his beloved wife, but a new routine had helped to make the most basic function of living no longer a source of misery.
Depression isn’t curable just by following a few simple steps, and not everyone is in the same situation. Some older adults will need home care to provide meals, and others will need therapy for their depression. But knowing, like Lauren did, that eating alone was a major cause of depression in aging adults, and that her dad’s sadness at mealtime was not incidental, but was central, to his grief, allowed her and her family to work to solve it. Understanding the causes and signs of depression are the first step in fighting it.  
Whether looking for professional help, a group to join, or just someone to talk to, having the right resources makes grief more manageable. At the Institute on Aging, we work to educate families, caretakers, and older adults on the psychological aspects of aging. Connect with us today to learn more.

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