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A Guide to Mental Wellness in Older Age: Recognizing and Overcoming Depression

Caregiving—The Role of Family Members and Friends

  • Listening—The most important role you can play is to lend a sympathetic ear and listen to the concerns of your family member. They need someone who will listen to them in a non-judgmental manner. But, careful, don’t play the role of therapist. Rather focus on expressing empathy and concern and acknowledge the pain and hopelessness they are experiencing. Encourage treatment.
  • Describe behaviors and events that concern you and explain particular ways a person’s behavior has changed. This will help that person recognize that he or she may have depression. It may be useful to help the older person understand that depression is an illness and should be treated by a qualified health professional. This may reduce the stigma that some older adults experience. If you need assistance, you might suggest that the individual request a visit from a visiting nurse or home health care worker to validate your concerns.
  • Offer to accompany the person with symptoms of depression to his or her doctor. You can assist by taking notes and being a second set of ears regarding recommended treatments.
  • Be prepared for anger or resistance.
  • Educate yourself about late-life depression. Resources are listed in this toolkit.
  • If someone you know has ongoing thoughts of death or suicide, contact a doctor or go to the emergency room immediately. Depression may include feelings of sadness and hopelessness, which includes thoughts of self-harm. Many depression-related suicides occur during the first three depressive episodes before a person learns that an episode of suicidal thinking is temporary. It is important to ask direct questions about suicide. Assist a person with depression to prepare a course of action before thoughts of suicide occur—for example, list warning signs and actions that you and the person with depression would take.
  • Learn the warning signs of suicidal thoughts including stating feelings of despair, stating that life is unbearable, inability to take care of business, wrapping up personal affairs, rehearsing suicide including discussing methods of self-harm, and abusing alcohol and drugs.
  • Make sure guns and dangerous medications are not available.
  • Don’t promise confidentiality to a person with depression; you may be forced to break confidences in order to provide assistance.
  • Encourage regular social outings and contacts; don’t push, but make yourself available for transportation and other services that may be needed.
  • Remind loves ones to comply with treatment—raise concerns if they stop medication or miss doctors’ appointments.
  • If one of your family members is in an institutional setting (for example, a nursing home), be aware of the symptoms of depression among nursing home residents including apathy, social withdrawal, weight loss, agitation, or prolonged physical rehabilitation. If you have concerns, talk to the medical director of that facility.
  • Take care of yourself. There is a very high incidence of depression among caregivers.

A Guide to Mental Wellness in Older Age: Recognizing and Overcoming Depression

© Geriatric Mental Health Foundation 2004
7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 1050
Bethesda, Maryland 20814

Expert assistance was provided by Lissy F. Jarvik, M.D., Professor Emerita of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, University of California-Los Angeles, School of Medicine; Susan Lieff, M.D., M.Ed., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto; and Stephen J. Bartels, M.D., M.S., Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Dartmouth Medical School.

The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation grants permission to print, photocopy, and distribute this material. Please cite the Foundation, including the address, phone and website.