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Is Your Grandparent Depressed? Part I

By Megan Mulroy, LPC

           While destigmatizing mental health has a long way to go, there have been many improvements in recent years. Most of my millennial and gen z friends have therapists and talk openly about their mental health, but I can’t say the same for my grandparents’ generation. Seniors are such an asset to our society! They have years of knowledge and wisdom and are unburdened by the social media façade that plagues many of us today. However, they didn’t have the resources around mental health growing up that many of us have had, and instead had very negative assumptions around mental health. Having a mental health issue in midcentury America was dubbed ‘crazy,’ and neglectful and abusive psychiatric hospitals (asylums) were still in operation.  The ‘American Dream’ promised our grandparents that if they simply worked hard, everything would be perfect- no depression here!  Mental health just wasn’t talked about, and if it was, there was a veil of shame around the conversation.

These children grew up into adults that never addressed their own depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. This can make it really hard to notice if a loved one or grandparent could be struggling with depression. These folks often don’t have the words or the tools in their toolbox to identify what they are feeling, what’s wrong, and how to get help. It can be even harder to identify depression in geriatric men as they were raised to stifle emotion and keep their problems to themselves (and still are to a certain extent!).

So, how can we help our seniors navigate their mental health? We all know that aging can be hard on the body, but it is also hard on the mind. Not being able to do physical activities they used to enjoy or get around the house as easily can be emotionally challenging for seniors. Listen for things like, “I’m not the man I used to be,” and “I just can’t get around like to used to.” Use those verbal cues as a segue to identify how you can help them show up for the version of themselves that is younger, more motivated, and happier with life. It is important for our seniors to know that getting help for a mental health issue does not make you ‘crazy,’ or in need of intensive psychiatric care. If you are in therapy, let them know what it’s like and what you get out of it. Find opportunities to discuss your feelings and invite them to do so with you. For example, saying something like, “You were so brave after your heart attack, and I was worried and sad all day. If I were you, I would probably be pretty scared. I’m wondering if you felt similarly?” Letting these folks know that it is OK to be sad, worried, and scared is really important and can allow them to feel sad and scared with you instead of by themselves. 

One of the hallmarks of depression is a tendency to dwell on the past, and when you are 65+, you have a huge and rich history of life. Take note and listen with rapt attention when an older person is telling a story of their youth or reminiscing about the way ‘things used to be.’ If you find them dwelling in the past, give them space to do so, and also encourage them to come to the present with you. It’s so important for these folks to know they are not alone. Relate stories they tell of their past to things that are going on now with their grandchildren, their bridge team, or whatever brings them joy. It’s also important here to note the difference between depression and dementia/Alzheimer’s, as many have similar symptoms. Folks with depression will often feel distress or uneasiness about cognitive deficits, whereas folks with dementia/Alzheimer’s may not realize they are not living in their past or recognize any cognitive issues.  In Part II of this series, I’ll talk about how to help yourself and your loved one if you are a caregiver for them.

Reference

Smith, A., LMHC. (2020, October 16). Recognizing Depressed Senior Citizens. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/and-running/202010/recognizing-depressed-senior-citizens

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