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Loss in a Time of Aging

Loss in a Time of Aging

I think one of the biggest things about growing older (and I’m into my 6th decade), is the losses you experience. When I think of the losses both big and small, I can’t help but understand that depression is always lurking around the corner. When will the next loss be too much to bear?

Looking back on my childhood, I remember my father spending a lot of time on a chair, staring at the television, after having come home from work. I often wondered why he wasn’t like the other dads who did stuff with their kids or who worked around the house. I always chalked up that to the fact that he had a heart condition. Looking back, I wonder if it was instead depression as a result of all the losses he experienced.

He had experienced losses early in life which he dealt with. He couldn’t go to college because his mother decreed that the money he had saved would go instead to educate his younger brother in the priesthood. On the heels of that his favorite sister died at 14 as a result of appendicitis. He worked in a job that didn’t hold much chance for advancement but with eight children to feed, he probably felt stuck.

When he entered his 50s after two rounds of heart attacks and strokes, he lost the ability to walk and to talk. The first time round he learned both again, but was faced with having to make some life changes as a result. After the second round, he bade goodbye to the ability to walk alone and to run and to talk clearly.

During these times, my mother and father both had to move from the house they called home and after a series of rental places, ended up in senior citizen housing. Their full life with cherished books and music and mementos had to be pared down to fit into a two room apartment.

The list could go on. Loss was something they faced daily. Big and small losses. Even in the strongest of us, loss takes a toll. And probably one of the biggest losses is that of the ability to be understood in this time of change. Very few of us understand what it is like to be old and to be facing these mounting losses. We think we know but do we really? I wasn’t aware with my dad. I wasn’t with my mom. And sometimes I feel like, even though I struggles with loss, I’m not even aware of it in those around me.

Loss is hard and given the right circumstances, it can open the door to depression. And if we as caregivers are oblivious to loss, we might not recognize depression either when it happens in those older ones we love.

– Bernadette

Depression, Suicide, and Aging – Not a Love Story

Recently in the Times-Tribune of Scranton, Pennsylvania there was an article by Kathy Wallace, a suicide prevention specialist.  An official from a local hospital, Lehigh Valley, described the murder-suicide of an elderly couple as “a love story.”  Ms. Wallace took them to task and rightly so because, in her words, “this is an injustice to everyone who has lost someone to suicide.  We don’t know the people involved and they may have loved each other very much but it is still wrong to romanticize this terribly sad tragedy

However, we as a society too often romanticize people ending their lives.  Whether it is Romeo and Juliet or the couple from West Side Story, the act is not one of love but rather one of tragedy.  How can we get into the minds of someone who commits suicide?  We don’t know what went into their decision to end their life.  We do know, though, that it is not weak character or a selfish decision that causes suicide but rather a brain that has undergone changes due to depression or other mental illness.  The brain tells these individual who are in a great deal of psychological pain that suicide is the only choice

And so looking at this elderly couple, were they alone in life or did they have a family?  Were they aware of the decision they made or was the decision compromised by an already existing depression in one or the other?  Did they both see this as the only way to stop the pain?

We know that older adults are at higher risk of suicide but it is not always or only because of all the losses older adults face.  Increasing the risk is the inability of others to identify and then give appropriate care to depressed older people.  Thus the rate of suicide in the elderly only increases.

Loss is a given as we age.  There are many small and large losses that cause extreme sadness and grief.  Sleep disturbances, mood swings and other signs of physical and emotional illness might be part of aging but these same signs could be symptoms of depression.  . Older adults can go through sleep disturbances, mood swings, and other signs of physical and emotional aging, but these signs could also be symptoms of depression.

Ms. Wallace urges in her article that “if you see unusual changes or know that family members or friends are going through serious loss, isolating themselves, or stating a perception of themselves as being a burden, please ask them how they are coping. Physicians, please ask your older patients a few simple questions during their visits about how they are doing emotionally. It could stop a tragedy.”

Amen, sister!


The Elephant in the Room

There is an elephant in the room and very few of us can see it.  The statistics about this elephant should wake us all up to action.  Sadly, they do not.

  • 121 million people world-wide have some type of depression (World Health Organization)
  • 14.8 million Americans experience clinical depression in any given year (National Association of Mental Illness)
  • Less than 25 percent of all people in the world suffering from depression have access to effective treatment (World Health Organization)
  • People 65 and over in America commit suicide at a higher rate than the national average (Senior Health)

And that is just the tip of the iceberg.  Several thousand miss work because of depression or are not effective in their jobs.  Depression left untreated can lead to a growing list of physical problems – high blood pressure, heart disease, dementia, to name just a few. There is also the loss of creativity and innovation that could come from such gifted individuals.

And then there are the caregivers.

Often stretched in many directions, caregivers themselves develop medical conditions and are always open to depression.  When one is working to maintain sanity while dealing with a loved one with depression, it can take a toll at home, in the workplace, and even with the depressed individual. Caregivers are called upon to do so much and are often not supported in their work.   Sadly, many of them seek support and receive none because of the vast misunderstanding of the disease.

Most people do not realize this ripple effect with depression – family, friends and co-workers are all impacted in different ways.  Whether it is dealing with the difficult job of coping with this mental illness or whether trying to heal the relationship disruptions or the physical conditions that come up, caregivers and those suffering from depression have an inordinate amount of stress in their lives.  

And many of us don’t recognize how hard it is. We ignore the elephant in the room.  We talk around it and refuse to see it is ruining the life of everyone in the room.  In fact, it is ruining everyone in the community.  Someone has to say something.  Silence is not an effective cure for depression.