What Can Depressed Seniors Do to Alleviate their Own Depression?
As a counsellor/therapist, doctor, allied health professional (or just a caregiver) of a depressed older adult, you are undoubtedly wondering what you can do to encourage them to help themselves. The following list is a compilation of strategies and tips culled from sites specialising in caring for the depressed elderly. You may wish to discuss the options named with your client and generate further options with them in session. Alternatively, you may wish to print out the list and give a copy to either the depressed person (if s/he is your client), or their caregiver (if that person is).
Helping yourself get past the blues
You can’t beat depression through sheer willpower — it is an illness after all, not a sign of weakness — but you do have some control. Here are some tips for helping yourself to overcome depression. They involve finding things you enjoy (especially some new ones), staying active, and staying connected. Some of the tips can help you adapt to changes that you would rather not have to face. You might feel like some of these things are too much bother, and that you don’t want to see anyone or do anything, but isolation and inactivity will make you feel worse. The more active you are on all levels — physically, mentally, and socially — the better you will feel.
This is at the top of the list for good reason. Physical activity has powerful mood-boosting effects. Studies show that it can be just as effective as antidepressant medication in relieving depression: and the benefits come without side effects! You may not feel like signing up at the nearest gym, but there is much you can do to add more movement and activity to your day. Think about walking up one or two flights of stairs and parking a bit further away when out somewhere, and don’t forget: housework counts as well. Even if you have some disability, you may be able to manage a walk. If not, there are many safe exercises people can do from chairs, including wheelchairs, and these, too, can lift your mood.
Get enough sleep, but don’t panic if you aren’t sleeping properly
Without enough sleep, the symptoms of depression can worsen. Try to get between seven and nine hours a night, but if you are not sleeping well, don’t upset yourself. This will get better when the depression lifts.
Get connected, stay connected
Your mood is helped by staying in touch, because social support is one of the best ways to beat depression and prevent it happening again. It’s simply too hard to maintain perspective with depression when you are alone. Spend time with friends and family, keep up with hobbies and interests that you have had in the past, and also be sure to maintain (or build) networks through avenues such as church groups, lunch clubs, day centres, and other groups that bring you into people. You may not feel like reaching out when you are down, but the payoff of positive mood is well worth the effort. You can invite others over if you cannot get out easily.
Join a spiritual or religious organisation
As per the previous tip, becoming a member of a church or other religious organisation has many benefits to do with the camaraderie and potential support of fellow members. But it can be more than that. Expanding your spiritual life through daily prayer, meditation, or stillness sessions connects you with that most inclusive sense of yourself (some would say Self, as in the essence of yourself) and with that sense of the something-larger-than yourself. Much research has been conducted and it is not controversial. All of it points in the direction of spiritual or religious connection being a solid resource to call on when your challenges feel overwhelming or when you simply want to experience an expansive sense of peace and joy.
Eat to be healthy
When people are blue, they sometimes lose appetite and are not motivated to eat. Unfortunately the resulting weight loss and vitamin and mineral deficiencies make it even harder to recover from the depression. Older bodies do not bounce back as quickly from physical ailments as younger ones, so it is important to keep yourself on the healthy side of food. Beware of store sales on chocolate, biscuits, and other “junk” food; they may cost very little at the checkout counter, but you pay later in terms of reduced health and vitality! Choose from healthy, natural foods which provide nourishment and energy. Check with a health practitioner about needs for vitamins or supplementation.
Watch your drinking
Alcohol can make depression worse, and it also reacts with any tablets you are taking.
Bring your life into balance
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress and the pressures of everyday life, you may wish to get some training in assertiveness, managing your emotions, or setting boundaries (in an emotionally intelligent way). Learn to tune into yourself, staying balanced.
Ask for help
Remember, depression is not a sign that you are weak; it is an illness. You deserve to get help to heal your illness. Talk to your general practitioner.
Take part in activities you enjoy
It’s part of being connected, and it’s part of maintaining a positive outlook.
Learn a new skill
Is there something that you always thought you’d learn to do “someday”? It’s someday now. What fires up your imagination and sparks your creativity: flower arranging? Bookbinding? What about learning a new language or finally enrolling in that class on Italian cooking? Apart from helping you move on from that contracted, unmotivated place that is depression, going to wherever you must go to learn the skill may have the additional benefit of bringing you into contact with people: people with whom you will have something in common (your desire to learn the skill).
Volunteer your time
Doing retail at the local op shop may or may not be for you, but there are plenty of ways in your local community to share your time — and possibly skills and expertise — offering your help. An 86 year old retired army general works several days a week at the local airport in the museum where old planes are exhibited. He just loves the early flying machines, and is able to provide extensive knowledge to visitors coming to see them. Apart from expanding your social network, helping others is one of the most reliable ways known to boost your own mood.
Get a pet
It’s true; studies show that stroking a cat, getting a grateful doggy kiss, or even feeding birds that come to your feeder on the deck all have positive impact on mood. With dogs, you get the added bonus that, in giving them their daily walk, you get one, too, which gives you exercise and a chance to meet people.
Don’t keep your feelings to yourself
Talking to someone does help. If you are on a tight budget, inquire into social services that may be available at your church or in your community. One organisation in New Zealand, for example, has “Friend on the Phone”: a service which undertakes to provide conversation to those who may be housebound by disability or mobility issues. You get a “friend” who rings you up once a week for a chat. Churches have outreach and pastoral care programs. And, as per the suggestion above, it’s ok to ask for help. Absolutely, you must tell someone (you can start with your counsellor or G.P.) if you have thoughts of taking your own life!
Create opportunities to laugh
You might have heard that laughter is the best medicine. It’s no joke: laughter provides a mood boost, so trade funny stories, emails, or jokes with friends and loved ones, watch a comedy, or read an entertaining book.
You might not play an instrument (although you could learn: see the point above about learning a new skill), but there are many other ways to connect with music. You can elevate your mood even at home by putting on music that you know lifts your mood and reminds you of happy times. Attending sing-alongs (such as Karaoke) or sponsored events, such as at your church or local day centre, where you listen and/or sing can be a powerful mood enhancer.
Tell your doctor if your medication isn’t working
Don’t just change it on your own. But know that sometimes you can be prescribed a similar medication which may have fewer side effects or be easier to tolerate. Your doctor needs to be in on any proposed changes.
Depression doesn’t cause dementia; let go of the worry that it does
You may have memory loss, confusion, or even some difficulties thinking when you are depressed. These are not the same as the forgetting and mind confusion that occur with dementia. Just because you are depressed does not mean that you will get Alzheimer’s or other dementia. If you do not have dementia, your memory loss and confusion are likely to be able to clear as the depression lifts.
Be kind to yourself
There is a saying hanging in a popular gym for those fifty and older. It states: “Old age ain’t for sissies.” Being an older adult can be a very enriching time of life, but it is also challenging. Be kind to yourself as you work out how to meet the challenges (adapted from Smith et al, 2013; Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2012; Helpguide.org, n.d.).