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How to Spot Signs of Depression: When Eeyore Has Nothing on Grandma

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He’s always been one of my favorite Winnie-the-Pooh characters: Eeyore. So sad, so somber, so blue.

But, as frequently happens, what’s cute in a cartoon isn’t always cute in real life. Especially when it’s Grandma. She’s lost her sparkle, lost her verve, seems to be in a funk.

And you can’t help wondering, is her depression just an age thing?

In one word: no. It’s not.

Just because her hair turns gray doesn’t mean her emotions have to as well. If Grandma’s suffering from depression, she’s going to need you to help her out.

So what do you need to know? 

Possible Symptoms of Depression: Because It’s Not Always As Easy As a Black Cloud Over Their Head

“Before beginning a Hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it.” (Pooh's Little Instruction Book, inspired by A. A. Milne)

Many clues of depression for older people are the same as those in the younger generations. So what makes it hard to diagnose?

Well, in younger people, we head to the doctor when the symptoms show up.

In older people? We often blame those same warnings on “just aging.”

Several examples of health issues to question in Grandma?

  • Digestive problems like nausea, indigestion, diarrhea, or constipation
  • Back pain
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Heart, lung, or stomach problems
  • Suddenly eating too much or too little
  • Struggling to remember things (especially when she knows she’s struggling)

And some emotional tip-offs:

  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Giving up on hobbies
  • Worrying about being a burden
  • Preoccupation with death or suicide
  • And, obviously, just plain sadness.

But interestingly, many seniors don’t complain about feeling unhappy. Instead? They note lethargy. Like their “get up and go” got up and went.

Other physical things to look for?

  • Moving or speaking in slow motion. Like Grandma’s just too tired to do it.
  • Self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs
  • Not combing her hair, ignoring showers, wearing the same dirty clothes,… In other words, she’s neglecting her personal hygiene or forgetting medicines.

If you counted one or two or a whole bunch of these symptoms for Grandma, it’s time to look further.

What’s causing the depression?

When Life’s Upheavals Trigger Depression: Growing Old is Not for Babies

“It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily. “And freezing. However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.” 

No, being older is not itself a recipe for depression. However, the problems that may come with growing older can wreak their own havoc.

Health Issues“They're funny things, Accidents. You never have them till you're having them.” (--Eeyore, Pooh's Little Instruction Book, inspired by A. A. Milne)

Is Grandma dealing with health problems like heart attacks, strokes, hypertension, atrial fibrillation, diabetes, cancer, broken bones, chronic pain?

Each of these most likely involve lots of doctor appointments, lots of medicines, lots of machines, potential needles, side effects, uncertainty, anxiety—for days, weeks, months…

Even the most stalwart can start to feel down.

Add to that medications that in themselves can cause depression, sometimes alone, sometimes because of combinations with other meds.

Grandma’s doctor may be able to provide some relief that could help her feel much more like herself even in the midst of the health issues she’s working through.

Loss“It’s not much of a tail, but I’m sort of attached to it.” (Eeyore, Winnie-the-Pooh)

Poor Eeyore is frequently losing his tail. Luckily for him, his friends can just tack it back on.

But for Grandma, losses may not be so easily fixed.

  • She may be losing her home—or realizing she can’t return there
  • She may have friends and family moving away for different living arrangements or even dying
  • She may be coming to grips with her loss of independence—depending on others to drive, others to shop for her, others to make meals

Every one of these losses bring stress. And stress can bring depression.

Fear: "Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?" "Supposing it didn't," said Pooh after Careful thought. Piglet was comforted by this. (A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner)

Life’s changes can be alarming. The world is spinning faster than most of us can keep track of, and while Grandma may be losing the life she knows, she may be frustrated with learning a whole new one.

The what ifs can be debilitating.  

  • Technology ushers in a new way of doing things, often even a new language. It also provides scam artists a new way to prey on the unsuspecting! Especially the elderly!
  • Add to that a transient society with job changes, divorces, remarriages. As family dynamics change, she may fear life will never be the same.
  • And as her health changes, she may be coming to grips with her own fear of death

No doubt about it, depression looms large when there are difficult things happening… And difficult things can breed difficult things.

Sometimes with Depression, It’s That Chicken or the Egg Thing…

“Wake Me Up When the Drama Stops” (Eeyore) 

Sometimes for symptoms and causes, we aren’t sure which one came first because one can cause the other…which can circle back and make both of them worse again. You know, that vicious cycle thing.

  • Insomnia—Can’t sleep because she’s depressed? Or depressed because she can’t sleep?
  • Sleeping too much—Insomnia’s same song second verse
  • Chronic aches, pains, and arthritis in her muscles and joints. Apparently, more seniors complain about pain with depression than they do sadness. But sometimes it’s the cause and sometimes it’s the symptom.
  • Headaches—of course
  • Injuries
  • Inability to exercise
  • Heart attack—Yes, we already said this could cause depression—but it can also be caused by it! That’s why you can’t ignore Grandma’s depression.

So What Can You Do?

“You can't stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” (Pooh's Little Instruction Book, inspired by A. A. Milne)

Not only does depression increase Grandma’s chances of pain and heart attack, but it can also hamper her rehabilitation from other injuries and health concerns.

After all, if she’s depressed, she’s not going to have the energy or the drive to do the exercises. And she might not have the will to fight for it.

So it’s time to walk down the path with her.

You’ll want to talk to her doctor who will know if antidepressants are the right choice of action. They can take longer in seniors than they do in young people, and if she’s taking other medicines, there could be interactions.

But some quick and easy no-pill ideas?

  • Take her for a stroll. Literally. Sunlight builds vitamin D, and vitamin D helps defeat depression.
  • Get her a pet. Or go visit someone who has a furry friend. (Recently my dog had seven puppies. It was one of my greatest joys when a friend brought her aging mother to enjoy them.)
  • Find her an art class, a concert, ….
  • Go with her to volunteer in the local school or daycare.
  • Take a trip to see some place she’s always wanted to go.
  • Sign her up at the gym—Is there a silver sneakers program near you?

And of course,

“It is more fun to talk with someone [who uses] easy words like "What about lunch?" (Pooh's Little Instruction Book, inspired by A. A. Milne)

  • So encourage her to get out for a meal with friends. An example? Some senior men near me meet weekly for breakfast. They call themselves the ROMEO club—"Retired Old Men Eating Out.”

No, Grandma doesn’t need to be as cheerful as Piglet, but it’s time to help her leave Eeyore to the cartoons. Show her how much the world needs her and connect her to people who care.

Because...

“It's so much more friendly with two.” (A.A. MilneWinnie-the-Pooh)

After all, Grandma may be more like Piglet than you know:

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. 
"Pooh!" he whispered.
"Yes, Piglet?"
"Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's paw. "I just wanted to be sure of you.” 
(A.A. MilneThe House at Pooh Corner)

Guest post written by Elizabeth Daghfal

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