I grew up with a parent with clinical depression (among other mental health issues), but it took me years to realize it. Like most kids, I learned everything I knew about how "normal" adults behaved from my own home life — so I didn't understand that other people's parents didn't lie in the dark for hours every day after work like my mother did. The experience helped me understand how hard a parent's depression can be to spot — and how desperately most people like me wish we knew how to talk to our parents about their depression.
A lot has been written about the negative impact that parental depression can have on young children, but many of us also deal with parental depression long after we ourselves have become adults. And if you're an adult child who is beginning to suspect that your parent is becoming depressed, there are fewer resources out there to help you navigate, though depression among older adults is very common.
The following five factors are often tied to depression in older people — so if you know that your parent is vulnerable to depressive episodes, you may want to check in on them extra if they're dealing with these issues. And if you're beginning to suspect that your parent is dealing with depression for the first time, consider these factors as you also keep an eye out for the traditional symptoms of depression, like restlessness and loss of interest in hobbies. Everyone can get depressed and need help — even the people who usually help you.
1. Your Parent Is Struggling With Getting Older
Though of course many older and retired people are happy — in fact, studies have shown that retired people have the highest life satisfaction rates of any age group — age is also often a risk factor for depression. Many older people and seniors experience depressive episodes — 2 million adults over age 65 suffer from depression, and some are dealing with it for the first time, or finding that other health problems or social isolation are exacerbating it.
What You Can Do: If your parent seems to be struggling to cope emotionally with some of the challenges of aging, it's worth chatting with them. You may want to read a guide or two on how to talk with someone about their depression to prepare, and be sure to ask them what you can do to help, and not shy away from asking uncomfortable questions (like if you're afraid that they might hurt themselves).
You don't have to be present in your parent's daily life to see if their moods are changing, either; you can try to get a sense of their mood through phone calls or from talking to friends or other relatives who see them regularly. You don't need to feel helpless just because you live far away — you can not only get a feel for your parent's mood while living in another city or town; you can encourage and support them through treatment while living away from them, too.
2. Your Parent's Eating Or Sleeping Habits Have Changed
Symptoms of depression among older people don't always look the same as the symptoms of depression in younger people. An older parent's depression may not manifest itself in crying jags or other symptoms we've seen in depressed friends or ourselves. But keep an eye out for the physical symptoms of depression, like insomnia and irregular eating habits — these are common signs of depression and other mood disturbances among older adults.
What You Can Do: Asking about their eating and sleeping patterns might provide a great entry point into discussing your parent's mood and general feelings. So if you're worried about your parent, you can try to start by asking how they've been sleeping lately. Most of us who grapple with insomnia always enjoy an opportunity to complain about how little sleep we're getting, and once that opens the door, you can move the conversation into asking about their emotional wellbeing, too.
3. Your Parent Is Grappling With A Loss (Even A Small One)
Of course, many older people deal with a major loss, like the death of a close family member or spouse, without having a depressive episode. But the kind of personal losses that tend to pop up as we age can trigger depression for many.
But don't only look out for major losses — smaller ones, such as being forced to retire or sell a beloved home, or attempting to cope with a new health issue that has altered their life, are also common factors for depression among older people. If you parent is dealing with a major change like this, and they seem to be struggling, watch how they're doing.
What You Can Do: Check in on your parent regularly as they recover from their loss. Are they eating? Are they sleeping? Are they talking about feeling hopeless? Feeling badly for a time after a loss is completely normal, especially if your parent is coping with the death of someone close. But if they've been grieving for over a year, they may benefit from professional attention.
4. Your Parent Is Struggling With A Physical Illness
Again, many people navigate the common health challenges of getting older without experiencing depression. But according to the CDC, depression is common among people suffering from physical illnesses, like heart problems or cancer — for instance, one third to three quarters of people with chronic pain disorders also experience moderate to severe depression. And because their depression may have developed in tandem with their health problems, both they and their primary care physician may have missed the symptoms — which means that they're not getting proper treatment.
Many older people might also assume that a depression that begins after physical health problems is the new normal, and not something that can benefit from therapy or mood-stabilizing medication. But all kinds of depression can benefit from treatment — especially treatment by a mental health professional with experience working with people who are older, dealing with physical health issues or grief, or whatever else your parent is struggling with.
What You Can Do: In addition to checking in on your parent's mood, outlook, and physical symptoms, you might want to mention some of the stats above, especially if you think they've become resigned to feeling depressed because they believe that what they feel can't be treated by therapy or meds. Do some research and see if there's a common connection between their health issue and depression — and let them know that other people who are dealing with exactly what they are dealing with have felt better with treatment.
5. Your Parent Has Expressed A Desire To Self-Harm
The aging parent who says things like "If talking to me is so much trouble for you, maybe I should just go kill myself!" is a punch line of dark family comedies, but in real life, if your parent mentions suicide or self-harm, even if they're presenting it as a joke, it's worth taking seriously. (Though this could also be a sign they're being toxic and emotionally manipulative.)
Suicide is common among older adults — according to the National Institute of Health, "Adults 65 and older have a suicide rate that is higher than the rate for the national population." Suicide is an especially serious threat to older men — the NIH notes that men over 75 have higher suicide rates than young men, and white men over age 85 have the highest suicide rate in the United States. So if your parent has started "joking" or making comments about self-harming, don't laugh uncomfortably or tell them they're being inappropriate — take it seriously, and find out how they're actually doing.
And don't feel embarrassed for taking the threat seriously. There's something inherently strange feeling about taking on a parental role with your own parents, but your parents are human beings, just like anyone else — and they give cries for help and need support sometimes, just like anyone else.
What You Can Do: If your parent is seriously threatening suicide, getting them help and keeping them safe should be paramount — you can ask a mental health professional you already know or work with for help, call a suicide prevention line like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, or, if you think they're an immediate threat to themselves, call 911.
Watching a parent get depressed can make us feel helpless or confused — but we know our parents and their behavior better than almost anybody. And so, when they get depressed, we may be better equipped to talk to them about it and urge them to get treatment than anyone else.
Images: Killer Films, Giphy (5)