Depression in the Elderly

Depression seems to be taking a toll on everyone these days. With news of terrorist threats and war everywhere, it would be hard not to feel a tinge of sadness now and then. Most people know when that sadness has gone too far. Popular thought dictates that one should seek treatment for depression after feeling sad, anxious, or hopeless for more than a two-week period. To receive help, however, one must have a doctor that accepts their insurance, means to travel to the doctor, the extra money to make good on the co-payment, and the ability to pay co-payments on any medication that they might receive. Perhaps most important, to receive help one must admit that they need it.

All of these conditions are simple enough, right? For most people the hardest move is admitting that they need help. Depression is still a stigma in today’s society, no matter how many famous people admit to having the same problems as the rest of us. Most people could scrape up enough money for a visit to the doctor, and there are services that can help pay for medication. But, think for a moment, if you will. Think of the elderly lady who lives down the street. She doesn’t drive, and the area does not have public transportation. She does have some insurance, but she refuses to go to the doctor. If you asked she would say it is because all the members of her family were fine until they started going to doctors, and then they all died. Twisted logic, to be sure, but remember that this woman is nearly ninety. People simply did not go to the doctor in her day unless they were dying. She has a little money that she receives every month, but it would not be nearly enough to live on if she did not live with her daughter and son-in-law. You see them sometimes, always leaving to go to work in the early morning and not getting home until dark. The lady is not up when they leave, and she is too tired for much interaction when they get home. She used to do quite a bit of the housework, actually, she did almost all of it until her arthritis no longer allowed her to stand for very long. You only know all of this because you talk to the daughter and son-in-law. The elderly lady is rarely seen. She used to go to church and to the beauty parlor down the street, but she doesn’t do that anymore. If you had ever talked to her, you would have known that she loved crossword puzzles and reading her Bible, talking to her best friend on the phone, and would never miss “Jeopardy!” or “Wheel of Fortune.” All that’s gone, now.

What you do see coming to the house now are therapists and sitters. When you do drag up the courage to ask the daughter what is going on, this is what you find out. She is a grandmother now, but her daughter had a terrible pregnancy and it is a miracle that she and the baby lived. She had to live in another city for around three months just to try to keep her daughter alive. During that time the elderly lady’s best friend died. The son-in-law tried to keep things going, but he was always so rushed and worried that he had no time for talking to her. She sat by herself, day after day, never knowing if her granddaughter and the unborn baby would live. She stopped going to the beauty shop because she did not want to be any trouble. She stopped going to church because her arthritic hands could not arrange her hair or button her good clothes. She slowly stopped watching her game shows. What was the point of watching them alone? She neglected her crossword puzzles and her Bible reading. Why bother staying up when there was no one to stay up with? Why bother getting up at all? Why bother with anything? You can’t believe what you are hearing. The sweet little lady that you sometimes waved to while going wherever you spend your days is now bedridden, unable to even use the toilet without help, and so depressed that she cares nothing about life anymore.

What could you have done? Was there some way that you could have stopped this cycle, or at least slowed it? Maybe. One of the major causes of depression in the elderly is loneliness. Another equally major factor is isolation. In the heat of summer, we are told to make sure the elderly are cool. In the cold of winter, we are told to make sure they are warm. In any season, won’t you make sure that they have a friend? Please, give them a ride, give them a call, give them some of your time. Be a nosy neighbor if you need to be. Report to the family that you almost never see the elderly person anymore, and when you do he or she looks unkempt. Families with a major crisis going on might not notice subtle changes in self care. Offer to take them out. Knock on the door every day just to say hi. Go against the societal standards that limit neighbors to just a wave and a smile. Do something. If someone had done anything, maybe you would not be reading about my grandmother in this story. Every detail is true, and the sad fact is that she does not want to pull out of her depression. She does not care to go on in this world. It may be too late for her, but look down your own street. Look in your apartment building. Look in a nursing home. Look in a hospital. The elderly need to know that they are loved and that they still count for something. Please, do not allow what happened to my grandmother to happen to anyone else. Let her story move you to action, and maybe some good can come from this tragic shadow of a life that she lives.

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