This year, on August 12th, Senior Sidekicks is honored to present at the 15th Annual Conference for Caregivers on the topic of depression. Our mission is to support elder caregivers so this opportunity is especially meaningful to us. Senior Sidekicks will discuss elder depression as well as its affect on the caregiver’s health and state of mind.
The Conference for Caregivers is unique in several ways:
It was one of the first in the country to highlight the role of elder caregivers. While there is some national conversation about our aging population, its impact on caregivers has not been on the radar.
Second, this conference has been self-supporting since its inception. Even through past budget issues, this conference continues on its own.
Third, the conference offers respite services to those caregivers who need it in order to attend. How many other caregiver-oriented functions offer respite?
Fourth, this conference surveys caregivers who attended on topics they request. Caregivers shaped this year’s conference. We look forward to seeing you!
A friend of mine recently asked about what to bring someone in a nursing home who “had a breakdown” following the death of the partner. One of my replies was; “bring yourself”. Aging doesn’t grant us immunity from depression, life happens and we suffer losses. These situations often lead to feeling blue or depressed. That would be true for any age group. However, our society equates age with being depressed. We need to advocate for a change in that viewpoint.
Why do older people often seem depressed?
When these things occur, does medicine consider treating the depression? More than once I have heard medical personnel begin their discussion with the words, “Well this person is elderly.” Age is a stage of life, not a disease. A person who suffers from depression is no different than a person who suffers from anything else. We should be looking for the causes at any age. Patients who receive treatment for depression do better on recovery from physiological conditions than those whose depression is ignored.
Depression can lead to other losses. Another senior told me his friend had finally married a long-time girlfriend. He had a heart attack and they got a divorce. The senior did not see the connection but I did; an untreated depression could have contributed to the marital problem.
What about antidepressants? Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Medications are tested people who are under age 65. If your senior is 75, 85, or 95+, they are in a different place physically than they were earlier in life. Think about this in terms of yourself. Consider your age, and think back 30 years. What were you doing? How was your health? What was your energy level? Are you the same as you were then? Why do we expect medications to work the same way on seniors who might be 30+ years older than the test group? Thus, it was no surprise to me that the friend in the nursing home also had “struggled with her antidepressants”.
What about other forms of intervention? A senior who has lost a spouse might benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. What grief support groups were brought to this person? Notice I said “brought to”. When depression hits, it may sap the sufferer’s ability to get themselves to the group. Support/help to get a person to the group might be necessary at first.
CAUTION: When you hear statements like “ending it all, no use in living, hopeless, or thoughts on death”; call for help. This level of depression requires more drastic intervention. While emergency situations call for drastic measures, those should not be the only ones employed.
What other things could you do to help a person suffering from depression?
In my decades of work with seniors, I look at the person first; who were they? What used to matter to them? What would help them restore a part of their life to what it was? Then, I look at many ways to respond. I consider what makes the suffering person better, not what makes it convenient for the staff. Giving a pill and walking away won’t do it. Bring yourself; the present of your presence is the best medicine.
The opioid epidemic is in the news. We don’t associate seniors with these issues. However we should be aware of the problems they can create for seniors. We caregivers do what we can to examine in-home help before they participate with our seniors. Agencies run “background checks” on potential employees. However, these methods do not always reveal drug use. Here’s where we are now:
I usually do not make specific resource recommendations but this one is excellent:Current Drug Trends
Sgt Bruce R. Talbot (Ret) MPA
I strongly recommend you take this course.Let’s keep our seniors safe.
If you put a frog in cold water it will stay there, even as the temperature is gradually increased until it’s cooked. However, if you drop a frog in hot water it will jump out. This illustrates to seniors’ lack of tolerance for hot weather.
Every summer there are warnings to check on the elderly, and make sure they are keeping cool and hydrating. Our seniors are survivors of a bygone age when there was little or no air conditioning; often only found in restaurants and movie theaters. The signs from that era showed the words with snow on the letters! Many seniors may consider it an expensive luxury, or an annoyance when the cool house is affects the joints. After all they have enjoyed many summers, and did just fine!!
What they don’t take into consideration is that their physiology is changing as they age. They become less tolerant of extreme temperatures. Also, they often don’t take into consideration that health issues, and medications play a part. Climate change has made summers hotter and today’s houses assume air conditioning in the way they are built.
The particular danger occurs when the air conditioning has been on for a while and then turned off. The senior, like the frog in cold water, feels too cold. As the house gradually warms, the body will attempt to adjust. Sometimes they fall asleep. They are unaware that the house is heating to the realm of being dangerous. This drowsiness or daytime sleep may interfere with taking medications or proper hydration.
When you call or check on seniors, if they speak more slowly, or have slurred speech, get help. If the senior is slower or more wobbly than usual answering the door, has evidence of confused mental processes, it is imperative to get them to medical attention.
Here are some very useful ways to avoid these problems. If the senior is feeling too cold, sweaters and socks are recommended. Protect the joints and keep the air conditioning on. Turn up the thermostat set point; even if the house is set in the high 70’s it will still be cooler than the outside air. Check for drafts. Perhaps the favorite chair is too close to a vent. Deflectors can keep the air circulating away from the senior. This way, the climate control will keep things from getting dangerously hot.
Caring for one’s self in summer is as important as protecting one’s health in winter. That goes double for seniors. Hydration in summer is important for everyone and especially seniors on “water pills”. Chronic conditions and other medications can also affect fluid balance. If the doctor prescribes an new medication, questions about fluid balance would be good to ask during the hot weather. However, not all seniors heed the need for drinking enough water. They may not feel thirsty. BTW: Children also have to be reminded to drink enough water because they get distracted easily.
Some seniors “theorize” that if they do not drink more, they will not need to use the bathroom as much. I have observed this pattern repeatedly. On one occasion it led to a severe drop in blood pressure which led to the senior passing out. On another occasion, the senior became so dehydrated that she had to be hospitalized. In both cases, the family was not aware of the senior’s decision not to drink. Therefore, be aware that this can happen, observe how much the senior drinks, (not how much they say they drink) and provide things they like.
The logic of some senior’s attitudes or responses escapes me but I did observe this pattern in another situation. Perhaps this perspective will help you as much as it helped me: My younger sister hated to take baths. She saw that our father used after-shave and it made him smell nice. One day, she was found with an empty bottle of his after-shave: she drank it. While my mother called the doctor, I asked her why she did it. She replied that she would “sweat” after-shave and smell nice so no more baths. Keeping this story in mind has reminded me to ask careful questions about fluid intake and not settle for generalizations. BTW: this sister also ate the mud pies she made.
We all know that “kid logic” is not the same as grown up logic. I am not sure that our society knows that sometimes senior logic works remarkably similar to kid logic. Not all senior suffer from these logic issues. However, please be aware that they can develop and manifest especially in summer.
Describe Yourself in Three Words. This is one of the games I include in my Course; Preparing to Parent Your Parent. Participants offer all kinds of responses; attributes like insightful or patient. Others describe demographics; father, wife, or daughter. Some describe themselves as fans of sports or certain teams. A few describe their occupations or religious affiliation. I write all their responses on the board.
Then, I ask the group, “What kinds of descriptions are on the board?” We assign various categories. I ask the group, “What kinds of descriptions are NOT on the board?” This usually meets with silence. Often I must offer some categories. Typically, people do not describe themselves by their income level. I offer that option. Then, I ask the group to look for any self-description that includes a diagnosis. None!
This game highlights the difference in how individuals see themselves compared to how society sees seniors. An individual can be anyone of any age. When seniors describe themselves, they use a variety of terms. When society describes them, it is often diagnosis-first! Age is a stage of life, not a disease. Life has many aspects. Health is one of them; not the only one. Unfortunately, we see those who are aged as = ill.
There are consequences resulting from such a one-dimensional view. If others will only really listen when you talk about your chronic conditions, it encourages a mental focus on those conditions. If the only time you’re touched is in the context of a medical process, you will seek such contact through medical occasions. Are we driving seniors into these situations because those places fulfill their human needs? All ages need attention and human contact. We know that children may behave badly in order to get attention. We know that small children who do not receive regular, loving touch develop more slowly. I observe that seniors also respond to attention to their non-medical interests and kindly touch. It’s time to ask for modification in our society’s view of aging.
How did we become the society that treats one group differently? I suspect our original view of aging was reverence. The old ones were the elders (leaders) of the group. They acted as the library and history lesson. The old ones had an occupation; to teach or act as guide for the young. As society became more complex, the old ones were not as visible. Industrialization pushed some women, small children, and elders out of the workplace. In agricultural societies, all ages played some role and all worked as a team. Illness was present in all ages, not just the old.
Basic health improvements like clean drinking water and public sanitation reduced deaths, especially in younger people. Basic care reduced some infant and maternal mortality. The old were not spared. Every winter, pneumonia took the lives of elders. This disease was once called the “old man’s friend” because it ended suffering from other chronic (untreatable) conditions. Thus, our ideas of the meaning of “old” evolved. It became equal to “sick”. Contrast this pattern with today’s medical care. We can treat pneumonia and other many chronic conditions. Elders benefit as well younger persons.
Our viewpoint needs to evolve if we are to meet the real needs of our aging population. Seniors need less emphasis on more medical care; they want greater societal integration and quality of life. They describe themselves in three words in the same pattern as younger people; attributes, demographics, (former) occupations, sports fans, and religious affiliations. In 40 years, I have never met a senior who described herself by her diagnoses. Why should we?
Would you like to talk with me about this topic?
At a social gathering a woman at my table stated she had not thought about herself as a future caregiver. She told me; “My parents are fine right now and thinking about them needing my care is scary.” Her comment made me think about what holds adult children back from preparing for caregiving. I see four reasons:
First: It’s scary. Certain factors make circumstances feel scary. When we don’t know what to expect; it’s scary. When we don’t know how to respond; it makes us feel helpless and scared. When we don’t know where to get help; it makes us feel alone and scared. No one wants to be in that situation. It’s normal to withdraw when we don’t know what else to do. There is a better way; preparation.
Our society has found ways to meet other challenges by preparation. For example, I live in tornado country. We never know when the weather will change. Yet, we don’t sit paralyzed: we prepare and respond. We have weather warnings, sirens, shelters, and drills. We may have tornadoes, but we don’t take these lying down! Because society prepared, life goes on. Life could go on for caregivers as well if they were prepared.
Caregiving preparation follows the same preparation pattern. Learn about it. Make contingency plans. Engage others effectively. Preparation removes the scary parts of the process. I developed a course, Preparing to Parent Your Parent, to help new caregivers or future caregivers do that.
Why do some people respond to a course for caregivers like this? “I’ll deal with it when the time comes.” Really! Think about the other ways they prepare. Would they wait until their car slid off an icy road to check the tires in winter? Did they wait to study childbirth until they were in labor? If they would do those preparations; why not do the same for caregiving? The worst time to make plans is in the midst of a crisis!
A second reason for hesitation: The same person described her concern about elder-related information. She felt like she had so much to learn she didn’t know where to begin. She wasn’t sure how she could remember it. Information overload is a 21st Century condition. Some people have described it; “like drinking out of a fire hose”! The internet doesn’t give caregivers ways to order, relate, and manage information. We have always had ways to manage information. Remember the card catalogue in the library? It helped us find the right book. We didn’t need all the books at once because we knew we could return to get more information when we needed it. A caregiving preparation course does the same task as the library card catalogue; manage information. My course turns the information fire hose down to a drinking fountain!
The third reason future caregivers hesitate is they do not have role models from their early lives. There’s a reason for that missing link; the age change happened so quickly. Let’s compare; in Sangamon County, in 1910, the average life expectancy was 50-53 years (depending on gender and race). Compare that to 2010; when the average life expectancy was 77-78.8 years. That’s a big jump in only two generations! Contrast that change with millennia we have born children. People grew up seeing many adults caring for children. We received role models by social osmosis. We have not had the same numbers of seniors, for as long, very until recently. We don’t have an historic set of elder care wisdom yet. We can fill that gap with preparation. We can learn new skills just as we learned to drive a car. We can adapt to changes, just as we have adapted to the internet. We have already learned and adapted to other things; why not apply them to elder caregiving preparation?
The final reason caregivers might hesitate is worry about health. That is not a selfish attitude. Every organism is oriented to preserving itself. Taking care of ourselves as we care for others is an essential skill (and included in my course). Many elder caregivers are also responsible for children, spouse, house, pets, and the job! It’s not selfish to be worried about how to will meet the needs of all these other people and the senior’s. It’s admirable to have these concerns answered.
Preparation is the key to helping caregivers remove fear, overwhelming feelings, missing role models and caring for themselves.
An adult child responded to one of my visit reports in which I had written about her Mother’s use of portable oxygen. She replied that her Mother really didn’t need it; her attachment was all psychological. The adult child told me the Mother had been previously evaluated for respiratory functioning and found “barely qualified” for oxygen. I replied that my observations didn’t confirm that; Mother was currently gasping for air upon exertion.
After a hospitalization, the tests showed the Mother had pneumonia. Pneumonia can be subtle in the way it looks to observers. We might think of it as a disease that leaves the patient unable to breathe at all unless aided. Not really. In my years working with seniors I’ve noted a variety of presentations. Some seniors describe a “smoker’s cough”. Some seem to have a cough that just hangs on. Some report they have “allergies” (that present as a cough). Some of these self diagnoses turned out to be pneumonia. This is a factor that should not be left to chance. Remember Jim Henson (the creator of the Muppets) died of an untreated walking pneumonia.
We need to check because what we can see may not be the whole story. For example, I asked one of my social workers about a reported reference to a senior’s cough. She said the senior had this symptom for some time. I required her to get the senior an evaluation. The tests showed a severe pneumonia that required hospitalization!
How can caregivers know; we’re not doctors? When I talk to seniors, I keep these three points in mind; frequency, intensity, and duration. When the cough has hung on a long time, it’s a duration indicator. Ignore self diagnosis and get an evaluation. Why, because seniors are more at risk. They may not be as active, they may be overweight, or they may have compromised immune systems. Just because a senior was once evaluated doesn’t mean they are still functioning in the same way.
Who was right; both of us. The adult child observed her Mother clutching the oxygen tanks. She did. I observe the Mother struggling for air when she transfers to and from the car. She did. The evaluation didn’t throw out either observation, it linked them. The Mother was struggling and responded by becoming hyper aware of her oxygen tanks.
It’s helpful to remember this tale when home care, or facility staff report an issue. Their report may differ from your observations. Evaluations help provide answers and directions. Ignoring reports can lead to more complications.
"A Senior Moment" is written by Ms. Sara Lieber, owner of Senior Sidekicks. Ms. Lieber has over 30 years of experience in senior care.