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Helping Older Adults Navigate the Holiday Season

The happiest time of the year can come with mixed feelings for some older adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 7 million adults in the United States aged 65 years or older experience depression every year. A recent poll found that one in four older adults say they feel isolated from other people at least some of the time, and one in three say they lack regular companionship. 

These feelings have likely been exacerbated by the recent pandemic, says Anne Asman, MS, program manager of the Geriatric Psychiatry Clinic at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute

“As we get older, we change physically and mentally, and our minds change, our bodies change,” Asman says. “As that happens, sometimes there can be a sense of disconnection and a sense of social isolation or loneliness. That certainly has happened over the last several years with the pandemic as social isolation has become a serious issue with older adults.” 

Spot the Symptoms of Depression

The holidays can also bring up some tough feelings for older adults. They might feel lonely, miss loved ones who have passed, or feel self-conscious about their age. As we plan for and celebrate the upcoming holiday season, it’s important that we consider the mental health of the older adults in our life. 

Older adults struggling with depression might have the following symptoms: 

  • Increased irritability

  • Sleeping more or less 

  • Worries that turn into intrusive thoughts that won’t leave their mind 

  • Increased and heightened emotion 

  • Crying when they wouldn’t usually do so 

  • Changes in appetite 

  • Changes in weight 

  • Lack of desire to participate in activities usually enjoyed 

  • Suicidal thoughts 

Stay Connected

In addition to these common signs of depression, Asman points out that older adults may exhibit some different signs of mental health struggle. And even if that person dealt with depression when they were younger, symptoms might have changed. 

“If you were diagnosed with depression as a young adult and now you're an older adult with depression, your entire physiology has changed,” Asman says. "Therefore the disease may actually change the behavior in which it is symptomatic.”  

  1. Be observant: “Observance is very important,” Asman says. “We must look at their behaviors and, when their behaviors change, we need to make that clear to them and to professionals.” 
  2. Include them: When you can, involve older family members and friends in activities they can safely enjoy. It’s tricky during cold and flu season, but inviting them to family dinners, weekend trips to the movies, or other activities can help them feel more connected.
    If an older adult you love is less mobile, make some time to visit them in their space. Bring over a game or a friend and spend some quality time together.
  3. Stay connected: Staying in touch is important for older adults who might feel disconnected. You don’t necessarily have to see someone in person every day to make them feel like they're a part of your life.   

Everyone is different, so find the best method for your situation. You could call every other day, send a text message, or you could even write a letter. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure it provides an open line of communication. 

Help is available 24/7

There are many resources available for older adults facing mental health challenges. Your local senior center, Area Association on Aging, and the Alzheimer’s Association offer support groups and activities. Larger organizations like the National Resource Center for Engaging Older Adults can also offer some guidance. 

If mental health challenges persist, Asman recommends finding a therapist or behavioral health professional who specializes in geriatric psychiatry and understands the unique challenges that older adults face.  

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988, which offers easy-to-access compassionate care for people experiencing any type of mental health crisis including thoughts of suicide, self-harm, and substance use, or any emotional distress for either themselves or their loved ones.