Once upon a time there were two sisters. Mary built a cabin by the lake with her husband. They sold their house in town upon retirement. The other, Beth, also wanted a “cabin in the woods”. She and her husband planned to retire there as soon as their youngest child finished college.
Things did not turn out as planned. Mary developed lung cancer. She needed to be closer to medical care. Those winding lake roads were not plowed in the winter. She wrote that “The bugs never stop” at the lake. Her condition made it hard for her to keep up with such a house. Since the lake house was new, they had almost no equity yet, and they had to sell. They took a loss as they moved back to town.
Beth had a different set of problems. Her husband developed some odd behaviors after he retired. She found it uncomfortable keeping house with him underfoot. She confessed to her daughter that she was considering a divorce! Thankfully, they had not built a cabin in the woods or they would have had no relief from each other.
Her husband finally enrolled in a program and participated in local archeology projects. One day the Sherriff’s car drove into her driveway. He announced that her husband had died of a heart attack on one of these projects. Now, Beth was a widow with a child still in college! Thankfully, they had not started to build this cabin. How would she have managed to finish its construction and sale by herself? She didn’t want to live so far from town now that she was alone.
What can we learn from these sisters?
Senior depression presents several problems. It appears as “mild” even if it doesn’t affect seniors mildly. Depression symptoms may surface as physical complaints. Seniors grew up in an era when receiving mental help = CRAZY. Each of those problems presents a barrier to treatment. How does a caregiving adult child get a senior to accept the help they need? They really need it. Even though seniors account for 13% of our population, they comprise 18% of all completed suicides! Our society must take senior depression seriously. Medication may not be enough. Religion/spirituality (R/S) may be a treatment pathway that seniors can accept.
Religious and Spiritual Factors in Depression: Review and Integration of Research is a review of literature: a look at 444 research articles on the subject of R/S. All studies were reviewed for their methods. 178 studies were found to be rigorously designed and their data analyzed. Most studies found that seniors who a religious or spiritual practice did better at managing depression or facilitating its resolution. The review found that R/S beliefs may be used to cope/adapt to stressful life circumstances. Seniors certainly face those; life-changing illness, loss of career, loss of home, and loss of spouse/friends. Their lives need ways to adapt.
A second part of this study, found a lower likelihood of mood or psychiatric disorder for those who regularly attended religious services. There was one caveat; if the R/S tradition was very orthodox, the senior may feel more judged than supported by their R/S tradition. You know your senior. You know what type of R/S practice they hold. If there is a supportive faith community; try it. This same review of literature noted that “pastoral counselors spend 140 million hours (doing) therapy each year”. That’s more hours than provided by the American Psychological Association! Since it is part of the counseling media, ask for this help for your senior.
Does it help? The greatest medicine is no good if your senior won’t take it. The same applies to counseling. If it’s socially acceptable to meet with the pastor; use that method.
Health and Spirituality, examined the relationship between health and spirituality. Researchers found that the modern, western era’s response to illness/depression was a departure from other cultures and most of history. In other times, religion was considered an integral part of healthcare. Major illnesses focus the patient’s attention on ultimate meaning, purpose and transcendence. The Nurses’ Study found that women who attended weekly religious services had a lower mortality rate that those who never did. Regular religious attendance was associated with a lower rate of depression. Wow! Does our society need to return to an integrated/ whole person strategy to effectively treat seniors? I believe we should.
Have we become too quick to provide pills to our seniors? The Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) has a “rule of 4”. If the senior is taking more than 4 kinds of pills, their risk of medication conflicts and issues increases. While medicine might be helpful, other strategies could make a difference without raising further medication conflicts.
How many pills is your senior taking? Is it a constant battle to get them to take medicine? I suggest you discuss the idea of trying regular religious attendance and pastoral counseling instead. As you discuss this method with the doctor, please keep this study result in mind. One study gave cancer patients and their doctors a list of 7 factors to rank when making medical decisions. The patients ranked faith in God 2nd. The physicians placed it last. Thus, it is the adult child/caregiver who must advocate for alternative approaches. Always discuss changes with the doctor. Try adding God; He just might help your senior.
Who knew that art might make a critical difference in the treatment of elder depression? In 2001, Dr. Gene Cohen conducted the first experimental study of seniors in cultural programs and its effect on general health, mental health, and social activities: Creativity and Aging.
This study has been citied repeatedly in other works and became a foundation for senior programming. As I researched elder depression, I was struck by three things in relation to this study. First, the date, Creativity and Aging was only done in 2001. We have drawn since we had cave walls. What took us so long to consider the relationship between creative arts and seniors achieving a healthier quality of life? How’s that for an outcome?
Second, the design of the study was notable because it included a control group. How else does one obtain hard data? Once the comparisons were made, it was clear; the arts make a difference. We worry about rising health care costs. Perhaps, we could lower direct healthcare costs by utilizing proven cultural programs. If, as this study demonstrates, cultural programs achieve true health promotion and disease prevention effects, why aren’t we using this method to address senior health issues?
Third, the seniors studied were OLDER that the average life expectancy! Wow, does that mean we could achieve even more positive health outcomes if we started cultural programming earlier, on younger seniors?
It’s something to think about. Medical costs are expanding the way we do things now. I believe it’s time to consider other methods as additions to direct medicine. Think about it.
"A Senior Moment" is written by Ms. Sara Lieber, owner of Senior Sidekicks. Ms. Lieber has over 30 years of experience in senior care.