Living and aging with happiness certainly sounds like the right way to approach life, but naturally, life can include difficulties that create sadness or even depression. While it is normal to experience episodes of negative emotions, it is important to recognize when ordinary sadness becomes a more significant state of depression that needs professional attention.
Seniors have an increased chance for risk of developing some level of depression. Changes as the result of aging, medical illnesses, and genetics put the older adult at a greater risk for developing depression. According to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, depression affects approximately 15 out of every 100 adults over age 65 in the United States. The disorder affects 25–30 percent of people in hospitals and nursing homes.
Social Wellness Helps to Curb Depression
One important sign of depression is when people withdraw from the social activities in which they would normally participate. Signs of withdrawal include neglecting personal appearance or cooking and eating less, and expressions such as, “It’s too much trouble,” “I don’t feel well enough,” or “I don’t have the energy.” Isolation for seniors is a real concern and ultimately contributes to feelings of sadness, which could lead to depression.
According to the Ohio Department of Aging, “Social wellness involves the ability of people to successfully engage, interact, and maintain healthy, meaningful relationships. It means feeling connected to, participating in, and contributing to the welfare of the community.”
Social well-being is a crucial piece of a person’s health, especially a senior’s health. Studies show that isolated people:
- Are more susceptible to illness
- Have a death rate of two to three times higher than those who are not socially isolated
- Have decreased ability to deal with stress
- Are more vulnerable to safety risks such as elder abuse and substance misuse
Therefore, a person with a healthy social network has a better opportunity for optimal emotional and social well-being, decreased chance for depression, isolation, loneliness, poor heath, and decreased life expectancy.
To expand a senior’s social network, the senior can volunteer their time or their skills to a good cause, such as to a library, with the arts, or they could offer to be a companion. “Researchers have found that volunteering is associated with a decrease in frailty. Volunteering connects seniors to like-minded people who are working toward the same goals, while enabling a person to give back to his or her community,” states Barbara Riley, Director of the Ohio Department of Aging.
How Technology is Improving Social Wellness
A study called “Internet Use and Depression Among the Elderly” done by The Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies found that Internet use led to about a 20 percent reduction in depression by contributing positively to mental well-being and facilitating interpersonal communication, thereby reducing loneliness. The Center’s findings support policy change to help seniors gain access to the Internet by making it more accessible, whether by developing broadband infrastructure to remote locations and/or through the placement of computers in senior living environments.
Intel-GE has concentrated efforts on developing Internet usage opportunities for seniors. Their subsidiary, Care Innovations Connect, looks to tackle social isolation and wellness through telehealth. While much of the telehealth industry is focused on devices for better home health, Intel has a history of researching social need of seniors and creating technology to enhance social well-being. GE’s Medtronic Inc.’s CEO explains, “We recognize that the conditions faced by home health patients are not necessarily clinical. It is part of our core mission to address social and support needs.” The fact that major corporations, such as these, are devoting resources to this issue is promising for seniors.
Seniors Can, and Do, Age with Happiness
After countless experiments of studying “What makes people happy?” scientists and statisticians have determined that four main factors which influence a person’s happiness: gender, personality, external circumstances, and age.
Women tend to be happier than men are. If you have a personality that is more neurotic, you are more prone to guilt, anger, and anxiety. Therefore, happiness will be harder to achieve than for those whose personality is more extroverted and who like to engage with other people. As to be expected, external circumstances, such as relationships, education, income, and health, shape the way people feel.
When it comes to age, Andrew Oswald, a professor at the Warwick Business School, and some of his colleagues noticed a trend appearing in the data in the 1990s. This trend showed that people across the globe are generally at their least happy while in their late 40s early 50s, but get happier as they get older. The theory behind this finding suggests the people begin to accept their position in life and are more comfortable with who they have become.
How to Make Seniors Happy
If you have a senior loved one or neighbor who could use some “happy” in his or her life, meaningfully engaging with that senior could make a world of difference for his or her state of mind and overall health. Simple gestures are a great start. Here are some suggestions:
- Smile at them often
- Help them carry something
- Call just to see how they are doing
- Cook them a nice meal, sit and enjoy it with them
- Do errands and chores for them
- Teach them how to use a computer
- Help them connect to the Internet so they can communicate with friends and family
- Listen to their stories – you’d be amazed at what interesting lives seniors have had!
Source: Adapted from www.zenhabits.com
Whether at a mild or serious level, depression creates concern for family members and can cause serious health concerns for the individual. While not everyone who experiences sadness can be labeled as depressed, the warning signs are worth noting, and the senior’s physician should become involved if the symptoms continue. Seniors may be reluctant to tell someone if they are feeling sad for many reasons, so it is up to the family members or caregivers to recognize when a senior’s behavior has changed and may be of serious concern.
Untreated depression can aggravate symptoms of other illnesses, lead to disability or even premature death, or result in suicide. When it is properly diagnosed and treated, more than 80 percent of those suffering from depression recover and return to their normal lives (Geriatric Mental Health Foundation).
Depression may be hard to diagnose because it can closely resemble dementia in older adults. A professional can perform neuropsychological testing to determine a conclusive diagnosis.
This chart shows the similarities and differences between depression and dementia. Differences are highlighted with bold and italic font.
Source: Society of Certified Senior Advisors textbook, Working with Seniors Health, Financial, and Social Issues, 2009.
- Sleep disturbance
- Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
- Poor attention/concentration
- Loss of appetite/unexpected weight loss
- Agitation/retardation of movement
- Memory impairment
- Loss of energy
- Feelings of guilt or regret
- Thoughts of suicide
- Sleep disturbance
- Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
- Poor attention /concentration
- Loss of appetite /unexpected weight loss
- Agitation/retardation of movement
- Memory impairment
- Difficulty organizing; losing things
- Language deficits
- Incontinence in later stages
Late-Life Depression Symptoms
Source: Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, www.gmhfonline.org
- Persistent sadness (lasting two weeks or more)
- Feeling slowed down
- Excessive worries about finances and health problems
- Frequent tearfulness
- Feeling worthless or helpless
- Weight changes
- Pacing and fidgeting
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Physical symptoms, such as pain or gastrointestinal problems.
Types of Depression You Should Know About
The two most common types of depression are (1) clinical depression, also called major and (2) chronic depression, also called Dysthymia. Each type has clear symptoms that define them.
Clinical or major depression. The National Institute of Mental Health explains that the symptoms of this type of depression interfere with a person’s ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy activities he or she once enjoyed. The symptoms present themselves daily or for most of the day for a period of at least two weeks. Depressed mood or loss of interest accompanies the other symptoms. The symptoms cannot be the result of substance abuse, a medical condition, or within two months of the loss of a loved one.
Chronic depression or Dysthymia. This type of depression is less severe than clinical depression. It is characterized by a depressed mood that lasts for at least two years, but does not disable the person from functioning in normal life. Symptoms for seniors who have Dysthymia include difficulty caring for themselves, isolation, mental decline, and medical issues. A person with this condition experiences feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, low energy, decreased ability to concentrate, has poor appetite or may over-eat, and may get too little or too much sleep. Overall, a person will take on a discouraging view of their lives, and problems seem more difficult to solve.
Depression is Treatable
It is important to realize that depression is not a normal part of aging. Most depressed people can improve dramatically from treatment. In fact, there are highly effective treatments for depression in late life. Common treatments prescribed by physicians include psychotherapy and antidepressant medication. Altering lifestyle by increasing exercise, changing diet, and increasing social interactions can also help to improve a person’s feelings of sadness and help fight off depression.
While depression is not a normal part of the aging process, seniors are susceptible to depression. The sooner that signs of sadness and loneliness are addressed by a caregiver, a family member or a physician, the less chance that the senior’s emotional and physical health will be negatively affected. Making the effort to get and keep a senior on the right path toward living a fulfilling and happy life are crucial if he or she is to age with happiness and avoid depression.
Where to go for Help with Depression
If a senior you know needs further assistance with their depression, consult a physician or contact one of these organizations for more information on dealing with depression.
Geriatric Mental Health Foundation
American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry
Mental Health America
American Geriatrics Society
Social Networks for Mature Users
These social networking websites are designed for individuals with more life experience to share.
- eons. A popular social network for Baby Boomers, eons offers plenty of ways to connect with others as well as brain games, blogs, videos, and photos.
- Rezoom. With lots of articles on music, activities, going green, money, and more, you will find plenty to keep your mind busy. Also, find a friend, read blogs, or visit one of the city-specific sites here.
- Multiply. While not just for older users, this site does have a large number of senior members. The features here include blogs, a social calendar, movie and restaurant reviews, and photo sharing.
- Seniorocity. Only for adults over 40, this network offers plenty of ways to connect with others including blogs, chat rooms, groups, and photo galleries.
- Boomertowne. Create a profile, then jump into the fun with discussion groups, movie reviews, recipes, and more. Boomertowne also features a singles dating service.
- EldersVoice. This site is a “social networking site for senior citizens who are young at heart.” Post photos, video chat, play games, or post on your blog here.
- BoomerGirl. Targeting Baby Boomer women this site is part social network and part eZine (online magazine). Sign up for one of the blogs and let your voice be heard.
- Eldr. Participate in the forums or start blogging to connect with others here. Don’t forget to take advantage of the great articles ranging from travel to the environment to exercise.
- Secondprime. For the 50+ set, this community includes the usual forums and such as well as volunteer activities, a social calendar, and more.
- Growingbolder. The concept here is to create an intergenerational community around news that is inspiring, amusing, and uplifting.
- RedwoodAge. This site has a definite social-change aspect to it with topics such as the environment, poverty, and the state of health care right along side articles about health, exercise, and travel. Visit the Village to connect with others.
- Boomer-Living.com. Join the Coffeehouse at this site to find their social network where you can meet others, play trivia, and more.
- LifeTwo. “Midlife improved” is how this site is described. Follow your online buddies with a free membership here or just read the blogs and articles available.
- My Boomer Place. Create a profile here and get started connecting with friends or making new ones, sharing photos, writing and sharing articles, playing games, and much more.
- Maple and Leek. For those 50+, this community is one of adventure and entrepreneurial spirit. Connect with like-minded seniors at this fun site.