Ask Dr. Debra
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My mother, who is 70 years old and in
relatively good health
for her age, spends most of her time in her apartment watching
CNN and getting
upset at all the
bad news in the world. I
think she is depressed. What can I do to help her?
A worried daughter
Spending all oneís time watching the bad news in the world is
enough to make anyone depressed. Iím a big believer in
selectively watching or reading the news. Most news,
especially on TV, is negative. Thereís lots of positive things
happening in our communities, country, and world. However,
this kind of news doesnít usually get reported.
When an adult enters the senior stage of life, an important
life task is for her to create new meaning in her life.
Otherwise, she can lapse into despair.
At her age, your motherís probably suffered losses in her life
such as lifelong friends or family members, perhaps even a
spouse. Because of these losses, perhaps accompanied by a loss
of physical ability, her social activities might have changed,
and she can no longer do the things she likes, with the people
she cares about. Health issues, a small, fixed income, and
perhaps the loss of the home she has known for years also may
contribute to stress and sadness.
Itís very possible that your mother is depressed and needs
medication. Depression is often under-diagnosed in the
elderly. Nearly 25 percent of adults over 60 suffer from some
form of depression. As we age, our brains are aging.
Antidepressants adjust the brain chemicals back to normal.
I suggest you make an appointment for your mother with her
doctor, and make sure you attend so you can express your
concerns. The doctor should give her a thorough physical.
There could be something physically wrong that leads to her
depressive symptoms. For example, when my grandmotherís
potassium levels dropped, she would become moody, tearful, and
difficult. Taking her prescription liquid potassium returned
her to her normal self.
The doctor also should check her medication list. Your mother
could be having side effects from a medication or combination
of medications. After her checkup and any necessary tests,
your motherís physician may refer her to a psychiatrist who is
familiar with prescribing medication to seniors.
In addition to taking her to the doctor, check to see that
your mother is eating properly. Itís not uncommon for the
elderly to loose interest in food because of changes in their
taste buds, difficultly in meal preparation, or sadness at
eating alone. Itís also important for her to take nutritional
supplements. For example, recent studies are showing that
omega 3 oils such as flax seed and especially salmon oil are
good for the brain and may be helpful for depression. Check
with her physician about supplements because he or she will
probably have some good suggestions.
Exercise is good for combating depression. Encourage your
mother to exercise. If she lives in a safe neighborhood, have
her get out and walk for at least 30 minutes a day. Buy her a
set of one-pound hand weights, and show her how to use them.
She can do this while she is watching television. If you have
the means, pay for a gym membership and hire someone to drive
her there. Or hire a personal trainer to come to her home.
Encourage your mother to volunteer for a local charity.
Volunteer work is a good way to achieve meaning in life.
Helping others who are less fortunate also might help her put
her problems in perspective.
I donít know if your mother still drives. If she does, sheíll
have far more resources. If she doesnít, you will have to get
See if you can get her involved in social activities such as
church or a senior citizens center where people will pick her
up and return her home. If she was previously involved with
friends or organizations, contact them and ask them to reach
out to your mother. It will probably be easier for her to
respond to people reaching out to her rather than her
I hope these suggestions give you a place to start helping
Feel free to
write me with your questions.
Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist
who specializes in relationships and communication techniques.
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