Beating the holiday blues: Depression and the older adult

Beating the holiday blues: Depression and the older adult

MetroWest CARES, the Committee Addressing Resources for Eldercare Services, is coordinated by United Jewish Communities with support from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey; CARES brings together professionals and lay leaders from MetroWest agencies that provide services to older adults. Each month, a MetroWest CARES agency presents an educational column on an eldercare issue. This month’s article on older adults and the holidays is presented by Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, which provides comprehensive services to older adults in the community, including counseling, help with transitions, and referrals. Lee A. Dagger, LCSW is a clinical social worker who is part of the Housecalls program at Jewish Family Service and specializes in the needs of this age group.

If you have an older adult in your life, anticipate that the holidays may be a difficult time and consider taking steps that can help keep “the blues” at bay. Remembering past occasions with loved ones can trigger mourning about spouses, family members, and friends who are no longer here. At family and holiday gatherings where the older adult was once an active host, he or she is now basically “just a guest.” Sometimes expectations for family gatherings are too high and the actual event feels disappointing.

Sadness is a passing feeling, but when it persists for more than a month and is coupled with loss of sleep or appetite, interruptions of normal activities, or difficulty maintaining weight, it can be a sign of clinical depression, which is not a “normal” part of aging, as many believe.

Sometimes symptoms of depression can be addressed by a simple doctor’s visit or a review of the older adult’s medications. If physical triggers are ruled out, the older adult can get help through many treatment options, including counseling or new medications with fewer side effects.

Although depression is often associated with women, it is almost as common in men later in life. The transition to retirement can be a difficult one for men; as they work to redefine their life’s meaning and find new ways to feel productive and important, many men are reluctant to seek support. It is incumbent on loved ones to watch for signs of depression in older adults and encourage them to get support and help when appropriate.

Depression can also affect physical health, putting the sufferer at greater risk for heart attack or stroke.

Some signs of depression to look for in older adults include a loss of interest in activities and people; decreased energy, fatigue, and irritability; and/or aches and pains (emotional distress is often felt physically in older adults).

If you suspect depression based on the above signs, connect your loved one with a medical professional who is knowledgeable about depression or a geriatric psychiatrist.

Holiday Tips

• Reach out. Social connectedness is probably the most important human need, especially with older adults and particularly at holiday time.

• Increase invitations to the older adult family member so expectations for the holiday season do not center on one day. This can also make holiday gatherings more relaxed and less pressure-filled for everyone.

• Be inclusive. Involve everyone in holiday meal preparation. Older, frailer adults can help with less physically demanding activities.

• Stroll down memory lane. Holidays bring memories which can be especially powerful in the later years. “Life review,” where memories of the past are very distinct for an older adult, is a natural part of aging. Encourage older adults to tell their stories and share their experiences; grandchildren often enjoy hearing how it was when their parents were their age.

• Don’t make the day too long. Older family members or friends can tire easily, even if they do not show it. Check in frequently to make sure they are comfortable and see if they need a break.

• Finally, feel good that you have made this effort, even if it all does not go as planned. The act of reaching out is the greatest gift we can give to someone else. Extending hospitality, offering company, and making another person feel important, particularly in a sensitive holiday season, is a generous act of human kindness, and especially important to the older adults among us.

Families and caregivers needing answers to broader eldercare questions can contact Elderlink at JFS — a portal to all MetroWest services for older adults and their families. Elderlink can be reached at 973-765-9050, ext. 511, or via e-mail at

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