The winter holidays can be a happy time of traditions and celebrating with family and friends. But for many the holidays can be also be a reminder of those we have lost. Additionally, the shorter days, less sunlight, and cold weather can bring on the “blues,” with feelings of sadness and fatigue.
So how can we tell if we are suffering depression, which is more serious than temporary seasonal sadness?
As a social worker, I support people who need care at home, as well as those who provide that care. This includes providing useful information. This month, I’m helping to raise awareness about the difference between seasonal mood changes and clinical depression.
Depression in older adults often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Depression in older adults can present differently. For example, an increased level of pain could be a symptom.
Your mental health encompasses your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. If you are crying almost every day, if you are so tired you are struggling to get out of bed, if you are feeling increased pain, if you are ruminating over past mistakes – this could be more than just a bad day; this could be depression, especially if your symptoms last longer than a few days.
In speaking with caregivers this month, my hope is to raise awareness of signs of mental illness, especially depression. Our caregivers are very conscientious about responding to physical illness, but sometimes changes in mental health are more difficult to identify. The first step to feeling better is acknowledging that there is a problem.
When a caregiver notices that the participant is experiencing mood changes that are more serious than the holiday blues, we encourage them to call the primary care physician. I stress that depression is an illness that requires treatment. When their loved one talks about feeling sad, I also encourage caregivers to really listen and try to understand what the participant is experiencing.
Recently, one of our participants was showing signs of depression. But her caregiver dismissed it, saying, “Oh, old people can’t do what they used to do, and that’s just the way life is.” This caregiver is very caring, making sure that the participant gets good medical care, stays as active as possible, and maintains a good diet. But he was also minimizing her symptoms. I spoke with the caregiver to help him understand that the participant needed to be heard and acknowledged.
The holiday blues are temporary, but clinical depression may last right through the holidays into the New Year. Depression can have a major impact on your health and well-being. The good news is that there are ways to help. The crucial first step is to identify the problem.
Lissa Marcucci is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who works in the Adult Family Care (AFC), a non-profit program at Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services that supports in-home caregivers across the Greater Boston, North Shore, and Merrimack Valley areas. For more information, visit adultfamilycare.org or call 617-628-2601.