Most of us anticipate with a feeling of excitement the opportunity to share the holidays with our loved ones near and far, even if we aren’t there with them.
We celebrate traditions, special meals, holiday treats and catching up with our family members who travel great (or small) distances to be together and reach out to those with whom we can’t be together.
Unfortunately it is not all moments of cheer for some, often particularly our senior loved ones. Far too many of our seniors find the holiday season to be a time of remembering loss and feeling sad or depressed.
Impact of Depression
Not to get you down over the holidays, but to make you aware of what might be happening around you, here are some statistics on depression.
- 15 out of 100 adults over 65 suffer from depression impacting 6 million Americans over 65
- 15-20% of older adults who live in our communities suffer from depression
- 25-35% of older adults who live in long term care facilities have symptoms of depression, this number has been estimated to actually be nearer 50%
- An estimated 2 million adults over 65 in the US have a diagnosable clinical depression
- 25% of those with chronic disease suffer from depression
Depression, however, is NOT a result of aging as many people believe. We can age without becoming depressed. Depression can happen to anyone, at any time and any age. Many people don’t seek help because they may feel that it won’t help because whatever is causing the depression will continue. Depression can have many causes such as the death of a spouse or close family member, a severe illness or chronic pain, loss in independence, and loneliness.
Untreated depression in the elderly can lead to a variety of problems, including alcoholism, substance abuse and even suicide. Someone living with severe pain and depression is four times more likely to attempt suicide.
Every 100 minutes an older adult dies by suicide – – the highest overall death rate of any age group.
Family Activities to Keep the Blues Away
We can help keep our senior loved ones from being part of the statistics by helping them fight off depression over the holidays.
- While the family is together, bring out old family movies and photo albums. Tell stories about the good times and talk about the loved ones who have been lost. Have conversations and storytelling to turn the sad memories into fun memories. Honor the family and the memories instead of letting those thoughts of loss creep into the forefront.
- Play favorite music and classic movies during the holiday season when the family is together and when your senior may be alone to bring smiles instead of frowns.
- Keep your senior busy! Find fun things to do to occupy them throughout the season and shortly afterward so that they don’t have time to let their mind dwell on sad times or losses they experience. Make cookies, take a nature walk, write holiday cards and notes, play a game, visit a museum, go to a local event like a parade or church choir, take in a holiday movie, drive around the neighborhood looking at holiday lights and decorations, do a craft project, plan the family meal and shop together. Don’t leave them out of any activity no matter how boring including household chores— remember the goal is to keep them busy!
- Set up Skype video calls with family members who can’t visit for the holidays so that your senior can have the opportunity to speak ‘face to face’ with long distance family members. Let them share stories and find out what is happening.
- Watch old comedy shows that bring a chuckle, like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners or Laurel and Hardy. Many of these shows can be found on the TV, in DVD form or streamed from the internet. Ask senior loved ones about their favorites and find those. Talk about why they liked them so much, did they have a car like the one in the program, did they wear clothes like that, and did dad wear a hat everywhere he went and mom wear gloves? Use these programs to open dialogue to engage their mind and relive memories to help distract them from other brooding thoughts.
- Get physical! Go for a walk, dance, hula hoop, play a Wii game, go bowling, toss around a ball, chase your dog, or any other physical activity your senior can safely participate with other family members. Make it a habit, not just one you do during the holiday. Staying physically active will help keep your senior mentally fit as well.
- If you feel that your efforts on keeping your senior engaged, busy and uplifted are not improving their mood and mental outlook, you may want to visit your senior’s doctor or speak to a professional counselor or religious adviser. They may need more intervention than you and the family can provide to help them through a trying time.
Remember, depression can have real, negative physical effects on our senior loved ones, including fatigue, withdrawing from activities, sadness, abnormal sleep patterns, anxiety or irritability, use of alcohol or drugs, or suicidal thoughts. We can help them avoid it, though.
Keeping your senior engaged, being observant to signs of depression and seeking help when it is needed will keep the blues away not just during the holidays but all year long!