Depression & Older People – An International Perspective

Depression impacts 1 in 5 of the population

As the saying goes, ‘time flies’. Suddenly we’re already in March and no one can quite believe how our lives can move on so quickly. When you have the energy and distractions of youth, it can be easy to forget that the passage of time affects others much more drastically.

Older people are more likely to suffer from depression, an issue which impacts 1 in 5 of the whole population; and feeling like time has left them behind can bring about intense feelings of loneliness and sadness. So, the dilemma presents itself: how can we help?

What are the ‘symptoms’

Depression can manifest itself in the elderly through symptoms such as lack of energy, sleep disturbances, neglecting personal care and a loss of interest in socialising or previous hobbies. Whether living in their own homes or in care homes, older people of society struggle to fight depression once their regular routines of work or childcare are lost. Retirement brings an era of great change for people and as their health begins to deteriorate, it can be easy to slip into a sense of hopelessness and depression.

Now, it must be recognised that diagnosing depression in older people can be tricky, because the symptoms can be mistaken for grief – an unfortunate companion of the passage of time. As we age, time takes people we care about from us and processing loss can be an incredibly difficult part of life. Therefore, it’s important that we all learn these differences, so that we can be present and able to help those around us who may be going through a tough time. Looking out for our elders does not always involve them directly; it can sometimes be more about the younger generations clueing themselves up on mental health and how things change over time. By understanding what older citizens may be going through, we can then be in a better frame of mind to provide the comfort and support they need.

Understand the role depression

Once we understand the role depression plays in the lives of the elderly, it’s then the case of figuring our how best to fight it. For this, sometimes it’s best to widen our horizons and compare how other countries are finding different ways to support the elderly. While countries such as Germany, who have a current epidemic of “exporting” their elderly due to the price of care in state, are not the example to be followed; another European country is setting the bar pretty high: Denmark.

Envy of the Scandinavian lifestyle is now extending beyond IKEA meatballs and a “hygge” approach to interior design and into the care sector all because of Denmark. Not only do they spend 2.2% of their GDP on the elderly and establishing the necessary facilities for them, but they also have councils of senior citizens to advise on the improvements needed to create the best quality of life. The Danish have also put in place financial help by providing a basic pension of £811 before tax AND making medicine cheaper for those who don’t have a private pension. Their centralised e-healthcare database is also a great source of pride for the nation, as it allows them to be more aware of medical issues their elderly may have; working in conjunction with a policy that all 80-year olds are entitled to home visits to show the older citizens that they are still a priority. We could definitely take a page from their book.

Denmark is not the only nation to take a new look at as we try to rethink how we try to provide the best care for our elders and protect them from the pain depression brings. Canada and the USA are currently taking on an adorable approach to revitilising the elderly: by throwing a bunch of energetic toddlers at them. In Seattle, a living care community shares its facility five days a week with a kindergarten, looking after 125 children aged 0-5. The senior citizens are mostly in need of serious care but being around such young and enthusiastic children reminds them of how vibrant life can be. “Humans are, and have always been, an intergenerational species” so bringing together these vastly different generations of society is both an act of innovation and tradition. After all, before there are friends and bosses and the pressures of adulthood, there have always been grandparents ready and waiting to join in with the daily game or sing a nursery rhyme with.

Depression in older people can stem from feeling out of touch or alone

Here in the UK, we’ve started to recognise these benefits through the Channel 4 programme “Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds”. But one TV show is not enough if we want to truly help our senior citizens feel an equally-valued part of our community. Depression in older people can stem from feeling out of touch or alone if they live far from family or in a care home because their bodies are not working as they used to. Four-year olds are the very epitome of joy, with their weirdly wonderful train of thought and infectious laughter – so it’s hard to feel depressed and helpless around them.

Our senior citizens are our grandfathers who sit in a deck chair and talk to you about the garden, our grandmothers who never think you’ve eaten enough and will always smell of cake, our parents who would move mountains for us even when they struggle to walk. They fought for women’s equality and in a war unlike any of us want to really understand; they designed the fashion statement pieces we now are calling “vintage chic” and fought against politicians for our futures. Now it is our turn to stand up for them and we are not doing enough. Ideas like integrating the care of older people with the education of the young should be rolled out nationwide and providing financial and structural support shouldn’t be up for regular debate. The UK always strives to be different, but that shouldn’t mean ignoring successful policies from other countries. After all, we owe our elders this much.

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