October is Depression Awareness Month. This year, depression has been an especially important focus as we deal with dramatic changes to our lives caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s been a steady stream of research concerning mental health during this time. Many experts report an increase in psychological distress as people feel apprehension about contracting the new virus, suffer loneliness as they’re social distancing, worry about their financial condition, and lose sleep over the well-being of those they love.
“Understanding the psychological side of this pandemic has been somewhat neglected because there is so much else that is of concern right now,” said Olafur Palsson, Psy.D., professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina Medicine. Palsson recently polled a group of people nationwide. “Our survey findings indicate that the anxiety and depression related to the emotional impact of these events are pushing more and more people into the clinical category of what is diagnosable as a mental health condition,” said Palsson. “We want people to seek the help they need.”
As expected, older adults have experienced the greatest impact from social distancing. Many of their traditional sources of connection and mental stimulation are now off-limits. They miss their grandkids. They feel the loss of simple pleasures like a leisurely trip to the grocery store or hanging out at the senior center. Social isolation has left a big hole in their routines … a hole that can lead to serious depression.
So in our eagerness to shield older adults from COVID-19, we should not minimize the health impact of depression. Did you know that the World Health Organization cites depression as the No. 1 cause of ill health and disability worldwide? They report that more than 300 million people worldwide are living with depression, among them many older adults.
The underlying brain changes that cause depression are more common as we grow older—so are other risk factors, including poor health, inactivity, chronic pain, sensory loss, loneliness and isolation, medication side effects, and stressful life changes such as the loss of a spouse.
If depression persists for more than a few weeks, it raises the risk of other serious health problems. Consider these two studies:
- Research from Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City showed that depression doubles the risk of early death among patients with coronary heart disease—and heart disease, in turn, raises the risk of depression. “Heart disease and depression have a two-way relationship,” reported the research team.
- Dementia and depression also interact. Depression can be a side effect of memory loss, but also, “Inflammation of the brain tissue that occurs when a person is depressed might impact the risk of dementia,” explained University of Massachusetts Medical School researcher Jane Saczynski, Ph.D. “Certain proteins found in the brain that increase with depression may also increase the risk.”
Depression also raises the risk of diabetes, stroke, hypertension, sleep disorders and infection. It makes it harder for seniors to manage those conditions. It is linked with substance abuse and suicide risk.
Here are common signs that a senior may be experiencing depression:
- Persistent sadness, feelings of hopelessness.
- A sense of worthlessness.
- Loss of interest in things they once enjoyed.
- Irritability, anxiety, restlessness.
- Fatigue, slow movements, loss of energy.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- A change in appetite.
- Substance abuse—drinking too much, smoking more, using dangerous drugs.
If you notice these symptoms in a senior loved one, don’t ignore the problem. Talk about it. Though older adults are more likely to experience depression, they are less likely to report it to the doctor. This is too bad, because depression is treatable. It is not “just a normal part of growing older,” as many people think.
As a matter of fact, several recent studies suggest that older adults are exhibiting greater resilience in the face of the pandemic. In July 2020, Patrick Klaiber of the University of British Columbia remarked, “While older adults are faced with stressors such as higher rates of disease contraction, severe complications and mortality from COVID-19, they also possess more coping skills to deal with stress, as they are older and wiser.”
In-home care can help
To help a senior loved one better deal with symptoms of depression, the first step is to seek a thorough evaluation from the doctor. This might take place in the office with safe social distancing protocols in place, or via a telehealth visit. The doctor might recommend antidepressant medications, psychotherapy and/or beneficial lifestyle changes.
Following the healthcare provider’s instructions can be difficult for seniors who are living with mobility issues or other health problems—more so now as the pandemic has amplified the challenges. So today, while taking precautions to protect clients from COVID-19, professional in-home caregivers provide mood support in several ways:
Assistance with managing healthcare. Caregivers help clients keep track of doctor appointments and counseling sessions and can provide transportation and assistance as needed, or help clients set up telehealth visits. They also can pick up prescriptions and provide everyday health reminders.
Personal care. We feel so much better when we’re clean and well-groomed! Caregivers help clients with bathing, dressing and incontinence care, and can do laundry. Many seniors experience an enhanced sense of dignity and self-esteem when assistance is provided by a professional rather than by their spouse, children or other family members.
Help around the house … including the kitchen. In-home caregivers today are following COVID-19 safety protocols as they keep clients’ homes clean and in good order. And nutrition is another two-way street: A person with depression may not feel like cooking or eating, and the resulting poor diet worsens depression. Caregivers can go grocery shopping and prepare delicious meals and snacks.
The human touch. The companionship and socialization provided by in-home caregivers is extra precious these days! Caregivers help clients interrupt the cycle of disability, isolation and depression. Right at Home recognizes the value of matching clients with a compatible caregiver and creating a program of activities that the client and caregiver can enjoy together.
Supporting physical activity. Exercise is a key factor in depression busting. Yet seniors who are living with mobility, sensory or memory challenges may hesitate to exercise. Following the client’s healthcare provider’s advice, the caregiver can accompany the client on walks or supervise a home exercise program.
Helping preserve independence. The loss of physical and cognitive abilities can be a big factor in depression. The inability to do the things we once enjoyed, and to do them for ourselves, can cause our spirits to droop! A top goal of home care is to enable clients to face and overcome those challenges, to help them do the things they’ve always enjoyed, or to find new activities that provide a mood boost, even as many old favorites are temporarily off-limits.