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Coping With Depression

By Janet Crozier

 

Seniors around the country flock to Florida for its nonstop sunshine and laid-back lifestyle, its lack of a state income tax and absence of snow. Florida has the highest percentage of residents age 65 and older - 17.6 percent - of any state.

But for all of the sunshine’s purported benefits on improving mood, depression and suicide among Florida’s senior population are a major health care concern.

“I just didn’t feel like going on anymore,” says a Jacksonville-area woman, aged 76, who declined to give her name. “Once my husband died, I sort of lost motivation to get up in the morning anymore.” She struggled with depression for years before seeking treatment.

Aging, with its life changes and inevitable losses, often precipitates a variety of life stressors that can lead to depression. Whether it’s the loss of a longtime spouse, major health problems and the accompanying medical bills, the loss of driving privileges, moving from a beloved home to an assisted living facility, or all of the above, seniors face unique changes and challenges that can lead to depression.

While most seniors are satisfied with their lives, those who are struggling can feel isolated and overwhelmed. Depression affects an estimated 7 million of the 35 million Americans 65 and older, according to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.

“Depression is not a normal condition. If seniors start feeling any of the signs and symptoms of depression, they should talk to their doctor,” says Dr. John Montgomery, a family physician, medical epidemiologist and vice-president of Senior Care Solutions with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida. “It’s a condition that can be treated medically and should not be considered a natural part of aging. It’s a myth that seniors automatically get depressed as they age.”

What Is Depression?

Montgomery says it’s important for loved ones to be on the lookout for signs of depression in the seniors close to them. Sadness and low moods can come and go. Clinical depression, however, is much more serious than the occasional “down” mood everyone experiences. Symptoms include:

  • A persistent sad or “empty” mood;
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in ordinary activities;
  • Decreased energy, fatigue;
  • Sleep problems (insomnia, oversleeping, early morning waking);
  • Loss of appetite;
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism;
  • Thoughts of death or suicide; a suicide attempt;
  • Irritability;
  • Excessive crying; and
  • Recurring aches and pains that don’t respond to medical treatment.

If the feelings and symptoms persist beyond three months, Montgomery advises seeking medical treatment.  Supportive counseling can help to ease the pain of depression.  Cognitive therapy to change the pessimistic mindset, unrealistic expectations and overly critical self-evaluations that can contribute to major depression is also a useful treatment. 

Additionally, major insurers such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, offer Medicare coverage options with access to mental health counselors. A senior’s doctor can prescribe antidepressant medication as a supplemental treatment, if appropriate.

Caring For a Depressed Senior

The first step in helping an elderly person who seems depressed, experts say, is making sure he or she gets a complete checkup, since their depression could be a side effect of a pre-existing medical condition or a medication. If their physician recommends a psychiatrist or psychologist, the senior may need reassurance that an evaluation is necessary to determine if treatment is needed.

And while most people suffering from depression welcome support, some may be frightened and resist help. Should an elder friend or relative be potentially suicidal, mental health counselors say it’s imperative to actively intervene – by removing pills or weapons from the senior’s home if need be, and calling a mental health professional or family physician for assistance.

“Help is available, and often the biggest obstacle is encouraging the senior to accept it,” says Montgomery. “Don’t give up on your senior if you feel they’re struggling.”

Janet Crozier has more than 30 years of experience working with older adults.  Ms. Crozier holds a Graduate Certificate in Aging and Adult Services and is a Certified Senior Advisor.  She has served on Northeast Florida Area Agency on Aging’s Board of Directors for many years and has been recognized nationally for her service to Medicare beneficiaries by the federal Medicare program.  Currently, Ms. Crozier is a full time Senior Educator with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida.

 

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