The phrase “happy holidays” does not always describe the holiday season. Especially for older adults, feeling isolated and dealing with grief can complicate the season.
Missing out on holiday festivities adds an extra dimension that detracts from the stability of a normal routine. Seniors may have a difficult time enjoying the holidays and develop depression during social isolation.
Depression might be dismissed in an elderly person, but depression is not a normal or inevitable part of aging. Depression is a real condition and there are treatment options available to help successfully manage symptoms and improve quality of life.
Read on to find out how to combat loneliness and holiday depression in the elderly with accessible and easy-to-understand tips.
8 Ways to Fight Holiday Depression in the Elderly
Combating feelings of loneliness in older adults is not meant to be a solo act or something solved with positive thoughts. There are many ways to help treat depression while having a happy holiday season, including these eight tips and ideas.
1. Ask for Help
From diagnosis to daily management, having a solid support system and healthcare team can help navigate depression. This is because older adults are both at increased risk for depression while being at increased risk of being misdiagnosed or undertreated.
Where to ask for help:
- Social services
- Family members
- Community resources
- Local organizations
- Healthcare providers
- Emergency services
- Support groups
- Grief counselors
- Others who have experienced depression and developed successful management strategies
2. Recognize the Symptoms & Signs of Depression
Symptoms of depression in the elderly exhibit differently than depression in younger adults. Depression in older adults can cause some of the following symptoms:
- Fatigue or decreased energy
- Sleep disturbances
- Attention problems, irritability, or trouble concentrating
- Changes in mood and appetite
- Persistent sadness, anxiety, or pessimism
- Feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, guilt, helplessness, or worthlessness
- Moving or talking more slowly
- Memory loss
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts (call 911 immediately and trusted healthcare professionals if these occur)
- Digestive problems without clear underlying causes
- Aches, pains, headaches, or cramps
- Loss of interest in activities/hobbies that once were pleasurable
In older adults, medical conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer may cause symptoms that seem like depression. Medications can also have side effects that might contribute to depression. Be alert to symptoms that seem out of the ordinary, and update a healthcare team as to changes that occur.
In some cases, a simple adjustment in treatment or medication for another health condition can correct the underlying cause. Encourage healthcare providers to communicate with one another or work in multidisciplinary teams in order to effectively manage individualized senior care.
3. Understand the Risk Factors
Older adults have an increased risk for experiencing depression. There are many factors that contribute to depression, including the following:
- Genetic/family history
- Personal history (i.e. older adults who had depression at a younger age)
- Home healthcare or hospital patients
- Life changes
- Chronic illness
- Loss of independence
- Divorce or death of a spouse/loved one
4. Learn from Trusted Sources
Many online resources are specifically designed for understanding depression in older adults.
The following example sources come from national or government associations on healthy aging, and they are available online for convenient access:
- Depression and suicide in older adults resource guide
- CDC’s Prevention Research Centers Healthy Aging Research Network Depression Webinars – hosted by the National Council on Aging
- Depression in Older Persons Fact Sheet
- NIMH » Older Adults and Depression (includes PDF download)
5. Know About Depression and Other Diseases
Aging adults can also suffer from restricted blood flow changes the brain and body as part of the natural aging process. This can cause alterations in brain chemistry and also be related to other illness or disease.
In older adults, depression can occur alongside other serious medical conditions. These diseases include:
- Heart disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Thyroid disorders
Depression can cause these diseases to worsen, and these diseases can also worsen because of depression, too. Knowing the symptoms and treatments of depression can help an older adult manage other diseases more effectively.
6. Prepare for the Path to Diagnosis
Exams and certain tests may be performed in order to exclude or confirm depression as the diagnosis. Be prepared for the following experiences in case they are part of the process:
- Medical history
- List of symptoms
- List of medications and supplements
- Blood and urine tests (to look for physical illness)
- Consultation with a mental health specialist (to help with diagnosis or treatment options)
7. Maintain Healthy Habits
Adopting and maintaining healthy habits at home can help seniors beat the holiday blues. Combat feeling lonely and depression at home during the holidays with the following ideas and tips:
- Create healthy sleep habits and learn about proper sleep hygiene
- Be aware of early signs and symptoms of depression, and have a plan for how to respond in the case that symptoms occur*
- Follow a healthcare provider’s instructions on treating any illness that may be causing the symptoms of depression
- Avoid alcohol, illegal drugs, and sleep aids
- Exercise regularly, as advised by a healthcare provider
- Have a healthy social life (even if virtually) and focus on building and maintaining positive relationships
- Talk about emotions and feelings with a trusted friend or family member
- Learn about the potential treatment options covered by insurance
- Stay active and engaged in enjoyable activities and hobbies
- Eat a balanced diet (senior home meal delivery may make the holidays easier to manage)
Communicate closely with a healthcare team about any habits or medications that might need to be stopped to alleviate symptoms. Also, do not stop medications or therapy protocols without consulting first with a doctor or healthcare team.
*It may be helpful to ask healthcare professionals in advance about advice around the holidays. Many healthcare practitioners are hard to contact during holiday seasons, and it can be helpful to prepare ahead of time.
8. Consider All Treatment Options
Depression, even in severe cases, is treatable. Take the following steps to determine which treatment options might be appropriate:
- Make an appointment with a doctor or other health specialist to help diagnose and treat mental illness and health conditions.
- Talk with the doctor or other professional about depression and mental health, and ask what treatment options are available.
- Choose between available treatment options and understand that different treatments work for different people.
- Sometimes, an older adult must try multiple treatments before finding one that is a good fit. Psychotherapy, medication, or a combo of both are quite common for treating depression.
- Continue to make regular check-ups and follow-up appointments with a healthcare team. Address and adjust depression treatments according to concerns and other health considerations as needed.
Implement these steps today, or share them with someone who is struggling. Doing so can help older adults have a healthy and happy holiday season alongside family, friends, and other loved ones.
Happy holidays are not only meant to be a seasonal greeting, but a reality in the lives of the elderly!
Depression and Older Adults. National Institute on Aging. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/depression-and-older-adults.
Depression in older adults: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001521.htm.
Depression is Not a Normal Part of Growing Older. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/aging/mentalhealth/depression.htm. Published January 31, 2017.