Helping Older Adults Experiencing Isolation and Depression

ESH Blog
Helping Older Adults Experiencing Isolation and Depression
An elder person and younger person sitting on a park bench together, they are embracing each other and look to be laughing.
An elder person and younger person sitting on a park bench together, they are embracing each other and look to be laughing.

Many older adults are experiencing increased feelings of depression, isolation, and anxiety in today’s post-pandemic climate. As they age, they also experience prolonged physical and emotional ailments, making emotional support and companionship vital for their well-being. Being an emotional support human for an older loved one is a commitment to caregiving, and caregiving can be a lot of work. Emotional support humans and caregivers for older adults are often also managing households, jobs, and/or children. It can feel like a lot! We see you, caregivers and support humans. Horizon Foundation wants to provide Howard County emotional support humans some tips and resources to help guide you along the journey of giving emotional support to the older adults in your life.

Tips for Supporting Older Adults in Your Life

Aging brings unique challenges, and as our loved ones age, it becomes increasingly important to provide them with the support and care they need. Here are some tips for supporting the elders in your life:  

Recognizing the Signs of Depression and Anxiety

As an emotional support human, identifying the signs of depression and anxiety in older adults is crucial to providing them support. Factors like chronic pain, decreased mobility, and prolonged use of medications can mask the symptoms of mental illness. Sensory impairments – like hearing loss – and living alone can also increase loneliness and depression in older adults. While emotional support humans should take their loved one’s physical condition and treatments into consideration, it is important to not ignore the mental experiences they may be having.  

Common symptoms of depression and anxiety in older adults include:  

  • Easily fatigued  
  • Difficulty concentrating  
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping or staying asleep
  • Weight loss

Feelings of depression and anxiety can have a direct impact on your loved one’s physical health.  

If you notice any of these symptoms in your loved one, ask them not just how their body feels, but how their heart feels. Try using the following phrases to help start the conversation:

  • “I know you have been dealing with the death of some friends/family members recently. Would you like to talk about it?”
  • “Is anything bringing you joy this week?”
  • “It seems like it’s been a while since you were able to talk to a friend. What’s on your mind?”
  • “I remember you used to get a coffee with your friend every week, and I wanted to see if we could start our own tradition.”
  • “When is the last time you talked about your day? I’d like to hear about it.”

Jumping Over the Age Gap

Generational differences can sometimes make conversations about mental health and societal norms challenging with older adults. You may have to spend some time helping your loved one unlearn stigmas and misconceptions about mental health challenges. Sharing facts about depression and anxiety can be a great starting point. Consider the examples and facts listed below when longstanding myths about mental health surface.  

  • Depression isn’t just “the blues,” and it isn’t a normal part of aging. It’s a real illness caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. In an article about the commonality of depression in older adults, the National Council on Aging cited a study that reports 1%-5% of older adults who are living independently and 11.5% of older adults who are hospitalized suffer from depression.
  • Increased isolation and grief from the loss of loved ones are factors that put older adults at an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety.  
  • The National Institute of Health has linked social isolation, loneliness, and depression to higher risks for other physical and mental ailments, such as high blood pressure, anxiety, and cognitive decline.

Above all, the commitment to being an emotional support human is a commitment to provide your loved one with compassion and understanding. Many older adults are experiencing a world where they are becoming increasingly isolated, marginalized, and can often feel misunderstood. When you find yourself having to break down generational stigmas, try to do so with grace and kindness. Below are a few phrases to help you drive the dialogue:  

  • “Grieving a loss is definitely a hard thing to work through. Have you considered talking to your doctor about how your feelings may be affecting your health?”
  • “Though it has had many different names and treatments over the years, anxiety is real, and there are many who dedicate their careers to helping others who suffer from it.”
  • “Everyone deserves to feel supported and understood, especially when they’ve been having a hard couple of months. I’m here for you.”
  • “It can’t be easy watching the world around you change so rapidly. How do you feel about it?”

Everyone Needs Someone … and Some Fun

Loneliness is considered a normal part of aging, and it’s essential to help the older adults in our lives find connection and companionship so they can thrive. This is especially true for those who are living alone, are unable to leave the house, or have recently lost a spouse or other live-in family member. All humans need connection and companionship on some level, and feelings of loneliness can have real impacts on the mental health of older adults.  

To start connecting with your loved one, talk with them about what they enjoy and what fun means to them. Then, make sure they are physically able to participate in the activities you plan for them. Here are some examples of activities you can enjoy with older adults in your life. Remember to set recurring times to engage and enjoy activities with each other!  

  • Play Games! Puzzles, board games, and cards can be great fun and a way to stimulate the mind, especially if your loved one is unable to leave their home. You can also try competitive games on smart devices, such as crosswords or card games if they live far away or can’t meet in person.
  • Get Outside! Taking walks, visiting parks, exploring farmers markets, and meandering through outdoor shopping centers are great ways to get physical and mental stimulation while enjoying the local community. Howard County has many parks that can help you and your loved one experience the great outdoors together, as well as farmer’s markets where you and your loved one can find great ingredients to prepare together at home.
  • Grow Their Friend Group! Help your loved one expand their friend group by finding clubs, events, and groups that interest them. Howard County has six centers for adults aged 50 or older that offer fitness classes, recreational activities, and volunteer opportunities. Places of worship often have programs and activities for older adults to connect and fellowship with one another.
  • Get the Kids in On It! Young children and babies can bring a sense of silliness and fun to an older adults’ life, and older adults have a plethora of wisdom and life lessons they can impart on younger generations. Across the country and the world, intergenerational programs are being implemented to offer older adults and young children the chance to meaningfully engage.
  • Ask Them What They Like! While you and your loved one may have some traditional activities that you like to do together, remember that everyone has the potential to grow new interests and outgrow previous ones. It’s important to avoid stereotyping or assuming your loved one has not expanded their hobbies or found new methods of entertainment. For instance, who likes video games? The stereotype of a video game enthusiast is a young gamer, but many video games have gained popularity with older adults. Ask your loved one what has been bringing them joy and fun lately and get their thoughts on activities before confirming plans.  

The Journey of Aging Doesn't Have to Be Isolating

Aging and the events associated with getting older can often feel like an isolating journey. By choosing to be an emotional support human, you are committing to taking the journey of mental and emotional wellness with your loved one every step of the way. It is important to recognize that older adults face unique challenges and to approach every interaction with empathy, compassion, and honesty.  

The tips provided in this article are just a starting point. If you want to provide lasting emotional support to an older adult in your life, but aren’t sure how to get started, check out our page for tips to get started.  

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