For most of us, December is a time of holiday gatherings with friends and family. We celebrate traditions and reflect on the passing year while making plans for the new. Many experience this as a happy season, however, for some, especially older adults, the holidays can be difficult. Holidays signify the passing of time and memories of the past reveal the absence of those who have died, and those missing due to distance and moves. Traditions once observed may not be possible to share in ways accustomed to, therefore the holidays may seem empty of meaning. It is normal to feel sad, subdued, and reflective when the losses of time occur. But, when an older individual experiences what is termed “Silver and Blue” for a long time, what may have been thought to be simple sadness is often a serious case of depression.
Depression is not a natural part of aging.
In most cases a person experiencing sadness or loss continues to carry on with regular routines and activities in spite of feeling blue. However, a clinically depressed person suffers from symptoms that interfere with his or her ability to function in every day life. A press release from the John A Hartford Foundation – Thursday, December 13, 2012, included the following:
Depression is a common and serious medical condition second only to heart disease in causing disability as well as harm to people’s health and quality of life. Mental health problems affect nearly one in five older adults, according to the Institute of Medicine. Depression is not a natural part of the aging process, but almost one in three people surveyed (27%) believed it was.
Among all respondents, very few understood the health risks of depression: only one out of five (21%) had heard that depression is believed to double an individual’s risk of developing dementia and only one in three (34%) knew it can double the risk of heart disease.
The John A. Hartford Foundation calls for better mental health care for older adults through a support team-based collaborative approach. Those of us choosing to provide non-medical in-home care for older adults are part of this team-based collaborative approach of support services for seniors.
What can we do to address depression? It may sound simple but there’s a great deal we can do and it has to do with gratitude!
The New Science of Gratitude
Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, is one of the foremost authorities on the topic of gratitude in North America. He has discovered what gives life meaning: Gratitude. With eight years of intensive research on gratitude in his best selling book, “Thanks! How The Science of Gratitude Can Make you Happier” Emmons’ research indicates that gratitude is not merely a positive emotion; it also improves your health if cultivated.
In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high-energy, positive-moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality relative to a control group. People with a strong disposition toward gratitude have the capacity to be empathic and to take the perspective for others. They are rated as more generous and more helpful by people in their social networks (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002)
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow. – Melody Beady
Touching Hearts at Home is part of the collaborative support team for our clients and their families. Because we are non-medical in-home care it is not our position to diagnose, but we can be aware and communicate concern to the client (in some cases) but most likely a designated family member when sad days linger into weeks.
What else can we do when those we care for and support are showing signs of depression? As non-medical support, we have the opportunity to give the gift of companionship. With companionship comes the art of conversation. What we talk about with our clients can influence attitudes. How do we develop an attitude for gratitude? We practice listening and become aware of how we talk…are we positive or negative. Gratitude becomes a practice…a habit! We ask the question, “What are you/me/we most grateful for today?” And then listen and watch the shift in energy from sad to glad.
Imagine the simple exercise of focusing on a few “gratitudes” each visit with a client that makes the heart sing. Person-centered care can include sitting with a client once or twice a week and talking about, or maybe writing, the things for which gratitude is given. When we notice a person feeling blue, you might begin a conversation by starting with this acknowledgment: “(Name), I am so grateful to be with you today. Being with you to share a meal brings meaning to my day. Tell me about what you enjoy most about our time together…?” And so the conversation shifts to the present and the positive versus reflecting on the past and losses.
A French proverb reminds us “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.”
We practice gratitude because it does not come easily. When the “blues” are present, it’s the heart’s memory, focused on things for which we are grateful, that shift the downward spiral of depression to the upward movement toward well being. It’s an exercise Caregivers can lead in the same way going for a walk might be the right thing to do.
The science supporting this practice proves a shift in quality of life for the better.
What a boost in satisfaction for our clients, their families, and all of us who experience the profound effects of gratitude when making a difference in the lives of those we serve.
Wishing you a holiday season filled with gratitude!
Director of Leadership & Development
Touching Hearts at Home