Mental & Emotional Health
Depression in Later Years and Your Five Senses
Depression can occur any time in life. But it’s especially difficult when it begins in your golden years. Geriatric depression, a mood disorder occurring at age 65 or older, doesn’t look the same as depression at earlier ages—and 90 percent of seniors who are struggling with depression are often misdiagnosed.
Symptoms of depression in later life include more aches and pains, cognitive difficulties due to vascular issues, confusion and irritability than the sadness, despair and helplessness younger people with depression experience. Seniors who meet the clinical criteria for depression often report not feeling depressed. As a result, loved ones, friends and family members overlook the signs of geriatric depression which leads to missed opportunities to improve a senior’s quality of life.
While there are traditional treatments for geriatric depression like medication and talk therapy, there are also wonderful holistic ways to consider addressing depression in later life. Because depression can be an experience of depletion, I recommend those in their golden years to feed their five senses. Here are some suggestions:
Sight: The very first thing a depressed senior needs to have is light. Light is responsible for turning on the brain and the body through the retina and the pineal gland.
Things to use: If you’re a senior with depression or caring for one, consider natural sunlight. Draw open the shades, sit in a pool of sunlight by a window or make time to go outside for the real thing. You can purchase Dawn-to-Dusk lights or Bright Light therapy products to help create more natural light in your home. And don’t forget to use color, what’s clinically called Chromotherapy, by bringing hues and texture with plants, textiles, paint and décor to the environment.
Smell: Smell is the most nostalgic of all your senses. A certain aroma, scent or fragrance can immediately remind you of an experience in your distant past. This is because smell takes a direct route to the limbic brain, where emotional memories are processed.
Things to use: Aromatherapy, the use of oils, candles, potpourri, can instantly lift mood. Research also supports using negative ionizers and air filters help improve mood and concentration. One of the best things is opening the windows to allow a rush of fresh air to fill the room.
Taste: Research has shown than most depressed seniors lose their taste due to the shift in serotonin and dopamine levels. For some, this may mean loss of appetite. For others, it may shift their appetite into overdrive.
Things to use: Consider incorporating foods that to bolster nutrition, such as lean protein, foods with Vitamin D, Omega-3 DHA, complex carbohydrates and ancient grains.
Touch: Studies show that being touched and moving your body helps reduce depression, lowers the stress hormone cortisol and increases the feel-good hormone oxytocin.
Things to use: Geriatric Massage, acupuncture and acupressure are wonderful experiences and can be covered by your medical insurance. If you have good mobility, consider a class in Tai Chi, meditation, swimming or yoga. A simple walk, a hug or a gentle warm bath or shower help improve mood and cognition too. Don’t forget Fido and value of snuggling with your pet. And if you don’t have a furry friend, there are volunteer organizations that can bring cats, puppies and even little potbellied pigs for supportive visits.
Hear: For many seniors, hearing diminishes considerably. But for those with depression, hearing can take a more intensive hit.
Things to use: Music is a great healer, so find ways to have it in your life. I also recommend audiobooks to seniors, especially those who are still hungry to learn or enjoy good storytelling. One of the greatest things to hear are the voices and laughter of loved ones. Find ways to reach out to others via telephone, computer or in-person visits. Ask if more can be done to see old videos or movies of family events or celebrations. Last but not least, make sure to wear your prescribed hearing aids so you can feel connected to the world.
As someone who’s lived with depression, using holistic methods to feed my senses made significant changes in my life. And as a clinician who treats others with geriatric depression, I’ve seen it work wonders for seniors as well. Please be sure to check with your doctor when you begin any of these holistic treatments, and if feeding your senses isn’t enough to lift depressive symptoms, more traditional treatments may be necessary.
Deborah Serani, Psy.D. is a professor at Adelphi University and an award-winning author. Her new book is Depression in Later Life: An Essential Guide by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.