As spring arrives and rejuvenates the landscape, it would seem to be the least likely season for depression to appear. Winter’s end and spring’s increase in daylight hours are typically uplifting events, associated with renewal, rebirth and joy. Yet for many seniors, spring can trigger or exacerbate the dark feelings and lethargy of depression.
How does depression differ from the winter blues or general feelings of sadness? It’s natural for everyone to feel sad or “in a funk” from time to time. It’s a part of life. Depression, however, is a clinical state that persistently affects every aspect of daily life, relationships and behavior. Its most common signs include withdrawal, fatigue, isolation and disturbances of sleep patterns. In many cases, weight loss and memory loss, physical aches and pains or decreased attention to personal hygiene can signal that a senior is depressed.
While depression doesn’t discriminate, seniors can be particularly vulnerable simply because the aging process involves additional pressures and conditions far less common among younger sets. The physical limitations and long stretches of solitude many seniors experience can trigger depression, as can declining health. When mobility decreases, for example, the resulting increase in dependence on others can lead seniors to feel helpless or out of control. Losing the ability to drive can be a significant change which contributes to feelings of low self-esteem and loss of purpose.
Loss, too, can trigger depression. With age comes the loss of friends, family members and spouses, resulting in fewer social opportunities, increased isolation and a growing awareness of one’s mortality.
But why does depression often manifest in the spring?
THE SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION
First, brighter daylight and longer days can leave seniors feeling more exposed and vulnerable than they did while “hibernating” at home during the cold, darker winter months, which lend themselves well to seclusion. Spring’s bright intensity can feel overwhelming to those seniors who may already be suffering from anxiety, driving them to seek refuge indoors or in bed.
Second, spring is a time when people are naturally inclined to become more active. This makes seniors more aware of their own physical limitations. The season also sets an expectation of “feeling better.” But for seniors, this doesn’t mean their health or physical condition will suddenly improve. Likewise, springtime is often associated with cleaning and tackling other chores, and this may be a painful reminder to seniors of their dependence or frailty. All of these things can stir up feelings of discouragement and sadness.
RECOGNIZE THE PROBLEM
Caregivers or family members can help depressed seniors first by recognizing the signs or symptoms. Because today’s seniors grew up when depression was considered a character flaw and, certainly, a burden not to be shared or disclosed to anyone, they’re unlikely to come forward and express depressed feelings. So it’s crucial for loved ones and caregivers to observe a senior’s routine as well as his or her physical and mental state, remaining attentive to any of the signs mentioned earlier.
Because other medical conditions such as strokes or Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease and dementia have symptoms that overlap with those of depression, family members and caregivers should watch for signs of those that typically don’t overlap: withdrawal, decreased attention to personal hygiene and indifference to favorite activities.
Once recognized, depression is treatable. The process begins with communication. Acknowledging in advance that depression may occur—especially if there has been a pattern of it in the past—and being ready to help the senior seek appropriate treatment can mean the difference between a prolonged struggle and improvement.
Seeking professional help is also key. If it’s unclear whether depression, disease or a physical ailment is the reason for a senior’s decline, family members or caregivers should contact the individual’s primary care physician and schedule a physical exam to rule out other potential conditions.
Once depression has been identified, enlist the services of geriatric counselors, physicians, family members or friends who can help support the senior through a diagnosis and treatment. Geriatric care managers make a tremendous difference in the quality of the experience and the results by overseeing and coordinating the elements of a diagnosis and treatment process. This ensures that each step of the way, from keeping appointments to taking medications, nothing slips through the cracks.
With proper treatment, thoughtful action and consistent support, depression can lift, bringing vast improvement to a senior’s quality of life and to his or her relationships with loved ones—as well as the simple pleasure of enjoying spring.
Steve Barlam, LCSW is Chief Professional Officer and co-founder of LivHOME, a home care provider, in 1999. Since 1984, Barlam has worked exclusively in the field of geriatric care management as a Certified Care Manager and Licensed Clinical Social Worker. He is past president of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers and is he is actively involved in the professional credentialing process for care managers through the National Academy of Certified Care Managers.