A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Depression & the Elderly


Depression is nothing to be trifled with. However, people have had successful results treating depression naturally: with a combination of supplements, nutrition, and behavior modification. The elderly, though, have unique circumstances to consider. Depending on an individual’s ethnic, cultural, and personal identity, the approach to treatment can be a bit more complicated. Here are a few important factors to consider with elderly friends and family members whom you might be in a position to help.

  • Differences between depression and temporary moodiness

There is definitely a difference between a short-lived bad mood and a more complicated, chemical imbalance. Depression affects a person’s ability to carry out daily tasks, and it reduces enjoyment of activities that were highly valued, in the past. If there is apathy coupled with affected sleep patterns, changes in eating behavior, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness or despair, the cause is likely to be clinical depression.

There are changes in brain chemistry that take place, so supplements and diet can make a real difference. Supplemental treatments like 5-HTP, Omega-3, St. John’s Wort, and L-Theanine may be helpful—though only with the advice of a physician, since supplements can sometimes interfere with the effectiveness of prescription medication.

Dietary changes can also make a difference. Try cutting out excess sugar and caffeine, which can cause unnatural highs and subsequent crashes in energy and mood. Also helpful for boosting serotonin levels are the naturally occurring Omega-3 oils in fish such as salmon and herring, other good fats such as that found in coconut oil and avocados, and turkey—which contains tryptophan.

  • Awareness of extenuating circumstances & unique factors to consider

Apparently, different cultures are treated inconsistently by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. This was found to be true in a 2011 study by researchers at Rutgers University, and then again in a 2013 study by Karen Zurlo (a researcher in both studies) and others from the same program. Specifically, it was found that African-Americans tend to be diagnosed less often than did white patients, and that a diagnosis of depression more often carries stigma. This is because spirituality tends to be seen as a replacement for treatment at a higher rate, causing Zurlo and her fellow researchers to hypothesize that “An approach that might be particularly effective in African-American communities might be for providers of medical and mental health care to partner with churches.”

It’s also good to recognize issues unique to the elderly, such as changes in sleep patterns. What’s known as sleep architecture changes as people get older. In general, the elderly tend to go to bed earlier and rise earlier than young people and adults. Moreover, many older adults find it difficult to stay awake for the duration of the day, so napping is more common. In their study titled “Insomnia in the Elderly: Cause, Approach, and Treatment,” Nabil Kamel and Julie Gammack found that “Excessive daytime napping can eventually lead to reversal of the sleep-wake cycle.”

Taking all these considerations into account, along with the fact that sometimes older people need less sleep, insomnia is still a condition that should be treated—since, rather than mere changes in sleep patterns, it denotes a significant loss of sleep over an extended period of time. Outside of prescription medication, which should always be considered as a last resort, there are a number of reliable natural remedies, including sugar & caffeine avoidance, melatonin, valerian root, and chamomile.  

  • Empathy & respect for each individual

In assessing a senior citizen’s general state of happiness or depression, consider whether there have been major life circumstances that have changed drastically, as of late. For example, the loss of a spouse or the sudden inaccessibility of a previously enjoyed habit, such as visiting the library or frequenting a local coffee shop for community and conversation. If an individual has had a sudden loss of mobility, suggest a replacement for the previous activity.

In order for handicapped or mobility-limited individuals to gain access to once-familiar intellectual community, you could suggest returning to college or utilizing the local library’s book delivery service in order to enable a continuation of intellectual and citizen-level engagement. In the process of returning to a once-beloved subject, older students may discover aspects of the discipline that were previously unfamiliar or find themselves pursuing a completely new area of study.

For example, Theresa Turlis spent the majority of her adult life as a nurse, but a broken hip caused her to reassess her career and interests. She decided to enroll in college courses online and discovered that she had a real passion for criminology. Turlis is now working as an assistant for a lawyer who specializes in cases involving abuse of the elderly. In addition to the online aspect making the prospect of college more accessible, it can also be less intimidating to engage with a professor and classmates in a virtual or digital space.  

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The only major difference between older adults and younger adults is age. With increased age comes the increased risk for health complications and conditions. However, despite this fact, senior citizens want to be treated the same as the rest of us: with dignity, empathy, and respect. Rather than automatically noticing the differences between yourself and others, pay more attention to the similarities.

Genuine interaction, empathy, and conversation may help alleviate someone’s isolation, making it less likely they will fall into situational depression—which has the potential of turning into clinical depression, depending on the individual. We’re part of a community of people and each of us makes a difference in various people’s lives; in this way, we’re all connected and each of us matters. As Fred Rogers reminded us, daily, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood!”


Elizabeth Larios