Depression Often Overlooked in Aging

Depression Often Overlooked in Aging

Jim Stinson, Former Consultant on Older Adult Ministries


In her mid-eighties, not given to morose thoughts and always life affirming, my mother startled me one day with a comment. She said, very matter of factly, “I know more people up there than I do down here.” She gestured toward the sky as she said “up there” and toward the ground as she said “down here” making sure I got the point she wanted to make.

Now while I could argue with her cosmology about the location of heaven, I could not argue with her observation. The fact was, she had outlived most of her family of origin; and she had outlived most of her friends. Indeed her life had changed dramatically over the previous decade. Her friends were dying with increasing frequency, as were her children and their spouses. She was speaking to a reality of aging. If we live long enough, we inevitably watch many of our loved ones and friends die.

This fact can, and often does lead to depression—an often overlooked and under diagnosed illness among the aging. When it is overlooked and under diagnosed we are often confronted with older adults who exhibit behaviors we would recognize more readily in younger people. We meet angry old ladies, cranky old men, older adults who just sit home and do nothing, mothers and fathers who do nothing to help themselves, and so on. When we deal with these people we discover how difficult it is to care for them. In fact we often tell ourselves, ‘there is no talking to them, they just don’t want to be different,’ and other self-protecting reasons not to try.

Is there a better way to respond? Are there some hints for those of us not trained to make such a diagnosis? When suspecting depression, we need to seek professional guidance for the one for whom we care. If a diagnosis of depression is made there are interventions possible. A professional can guide us in this area.

One method I have used frequently is the most obvious—inviting the person to elaborate on the feeling. (“Mom, I’m sure that’s right. I don’t know how that feels. Would you be willing to tell me more about it?”) Rather than avoiding the difficult person, or talking around the issue, try listening. It is often the beginning of healing. It happens when someone knows his or her feelings are being validated and that someone else understands.

Ministry to and with older adults is challenging at times. But a sense of wanting to know and love the person can lead to a willingness to grow and learn as much as possible in order to be an increasingly healing presence in their lives.

Feel free to print or share with your congregation. © 2013 Rev. James Stinson