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When It's More Than Just the Blues

Depression is the most common mental health problem of older people, yet it is often overlooked as a clinical disorder with serious complications. Grieving over the death of a friend, relative, or spouse can certainly leave your mom and dad feeling depressed. That's normal and healthy. But much of our society believes that depression goes hand-in-hand with old age. They think that with all of the losses older people go through, the aches and pains that they have, and the closer they get to dying—they should be depressed. It's natural to be depressed when you're old. Wrong! Many older people, in fact, have reached a point in life where they feel fulfilled, at peace with themselves, and glad to be out of the wear and tear of raising kids and climbing the career ladder.

Even though the good news is that it's not normal for your parents to be depressed, the bad news is that if they are depressed, it's likely to be ignored. Doctors and family members simply don't pick up on it partly because—you guessed it—everybody thinks it's an age thing. The challenge for you—and this is a tough one—is to know when it's not just the blues.

Senior Alert

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that although about one in five people over 60 suffers from levels of depression that require medical intervention, most receive no treatment of any kind.

Silver Lining

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that a combination of psychotherapy and medications has an 80 percent success rate in helping older adults beat depression.

What Is Depression?

Depression is an illness of intense sadness that interferes with the ability to function, feel pleasure, or maintain interest. Researchers have discovered that biochemical imbalances in the brain go hand-in-hand with depression. It may follow a recent loss or other sad event, but the intensity of responding to the event and the duration persist far beyond what is healthy. The illness isn't just psychological. Counseling alone won't bring someone out of it, nor will a good talking to as in “Mom, you've just got to snap yourself out of this.” She can't talk away the biochemical changes in her body.

Depression is complicated. Scientists aren't sure what triggers it, but they do know it can be linked to genetics, loss, fear of illness and death, stress, hormonal changes, isolation, physical illness, and medications. Women are twice as likely as men to be depressed, often responding to adversity by withdrawing or blaming themselves. Female hormonal changes are also suspected of making women more vulnerable.

So What Can You Do?

Check out the following list for the signs of depression. If you suspect your mom is depressed, try talking to her about bringing this up with her primary or family physician. Ask her to describe what she's feeling. Acknowledge that you know she just hasn't been herself and that depression can take on a life of its own. Let her know that you understand that she isn't controlling what she feels. You know that she's not just sitting around feeling sorry for herself. Reassure her that there are things that can be done, but she'll need a doctor to sort things out.

More on: Aging Parents


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents © 2001 by Linda Colvin Rhodes, Ed.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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