Dealing with a Depressed Parent

Depression can be debilitating and can lead to poor health in a number of ways. Determining whether or not your parent is suffering from depression is the first step toward helping them cope.

Contrary to some beliefs, feeling depressed is not a normal sign of aging. While older adults do contend with more loss and transition during the last few decades of life, feeling sad at times is not the same as depression. If you are concerned about your family member feeling depressed, or if you are struggling to support your older loved one who has a diagnosis of depression, you could benefit from learning more about the disease as well as healthy coping skills.

Seniors and Depression

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the number of seniors living in the community with depression is about 1%. However, that number increases to 5% for older adults who require help at home, and to 11% for those in the hospital. Depression in seniors can be tricky to diagnose, mostly due to low self-reporting and myths that sadness and aging go hand in hand. Fortunately, once depression is diagnosed, it is treatable.

Risk Factors

While depression is not a normal part of aging, there are risk factors that increase with age. For example, people living with chronic pain have an increased risk for depression. Chronic medical conditions, decreased mobility, and decreased independence can also lead to increased risk of depression. Many older adults do have at least one of these contributing factors.

Veterans also have an increased risk of depression, self-harm, or suicide. If your loved one was in the military, whether in active duty or not, it could increase the risk of depression or anxiety.

What to Look For

Not all older adults will report feeling depressed. In fact, most older adults living with depression are not diagnosed at all because of the decreased rate of reporting. You can advocate for your loved one’s mental health needs by looking for signs that could indicate depression. Tell the doctor if you observe any of the following:

  • Weeping or crying throughout the day
  • Sleep disturbances; this can include sleeping too much or insomnia
  • Anger or mood disturbances that are not “normal” for that person
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of motivation to pursue any activity
  • Actively avoiding social situations or visits from friends
  • Statements about life being hopeless or not worth living
  • Unexplained scars, cuts, or bruises that could indicate self-harm attempts
  • Persistent pain or intestinal issues that do not go away with treatment
  • Statements of feeling worthless
  • Flat or sad facial affect

While these signs of depression may not present in every older adult living with the condition, observing a few could be a reason to contact a physician. Further, any acute changes in mood or behavior should be reported immediately as well.

Supporting a Depressed Parent

Caring for someone living with depression can be difficult at times. If you are in this position, it is important that you encourage medical assistance, promote healthy lifestyle habits, and have patience.

First, assure you are getting your loved one the medical care they need to fight depression. If there is not already a diagnosis of depression, and you observe warning signs that concern you, talk to your loved one’s physician. Be honest about your observations. If possible, bring in a list of observations you have made in the past few months.

Once there is a diagnosis of depression, your loved one’s medical team can begin to develop a treatment plan. Fortunately, depression is treatable with the right combination of medication and psychotherapy. Unfortunately, it can take a few months for medication to produce a positive result and doctors may have to vary the dose to find the perfect fit for each person.

Begin your support by getting the prescription medication as ordered for your loved one. Use pill boxes to help with proper and safe distribution. It is also important that you assure doctors, pharmacists, and specialists who implement treatment know about this new medication. While relatively rare, antidepressants can cause some side effects when paired with other drugs.

After you have assured antidepressant medication is available and safe, it is time to move on to psychotherapy, or “talk therapy”. Look for a counselor nearby that serves seniors. If you cannot find one easily, call your city’s senior services department for a few referrals.

Once you find a counselor, add regular appointments to the calendar. In some cases, you may be able to find a counselor who has office hours at the local senior center. This could improve the chances of getting your loved one to and from regular appointments.

Regular participation in support groups are also beneficial for fighting depression. Check your library, senior center, park district, local hospital, or senior care community to find a support group that could offer encouragement and validation from peers. The support group should be led by a trained facilitator and should encourage sharing from the group as well as educational lectures about coping skills.

Socialization is another key component in a depression treatment plan. You may find this to be difficult, especially if your loved one doesn’t drive, lives alone, or has a limited social circle. However, connecting with peers has demonstrated decreased depression rates and is an important step in recovery. Find a few groups at the park district or library and encourage participation. You may find better success if you attend the group for a few times with your loved one, before they attend on their own.

Finally, you can support a senior who is depressed by making healthy decisions as simple as possible. Stock the fridge with healthy foods, including individual servings of meals they just have to pop in the microwave. Prewash and cut veggies or fruits, as these tasks can seem overwhelming when in the darkness of depression. Make water readily available and eliminate alcohol (a depressant) from the home for now as well.

As you encourage and facilitate positive mental health, you should also be on the look out for any signs of improvement or decline. Report these observations to the doctor or mental health professional for appropriate follow up treatment.

Taking Care of Yourself Too

Supporting someone who is depressed can take a toll on the caregiver as well. Assure you are taking time away from your caregiving role to care for yourself. If you find yourself getting frustrated at your loved one for consistent negative or depressed comments, take a step back for a deep breath. Remember, this is a serious mental health condition that can be treated. These feelings shall diminish or decrease over time and you will have better interactions together soon enough.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (31 January 2017). Depression is not a normal part of growing older. Retrieved from

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