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Helping parents to avoid depression

With depression known to be a real risk in an ageing population, there are many ways that we can help our parents to keep active and independent to stave off the gloom.

Our parents can become depressed for many reasons. Losing friends and loved ones is an obvious cause, but loneliness through lack of human contact is a worry too. And any parent that moves away from a lifetime home to be closer to family or into care will find adjusting difficult. Illness can bring anyone to a low point. Then there’s simply the sad acknowledgement that for some people physical and mental capabilities are ebbing away, and won’t be making a return.

We asked the Mental Health Foundation for some advice on preventing depression in later life. They point out that 1 in 4 of us has a mental health problem at some point in our lives, and older people may have a greater risk of developing depression and dementia. In fact 1 in 7 people aged over 65 has major depression which is severe and persistent and disrupts day-to-day functioning.

However, although 1 in 4 has depression severe enough to affect quality of life the Foundation emphasises that depression isn’t an inevitable feature of ageing and many people enjoy later life.

While public bodies in government, health and education all have a role to play, we too can help our parents to avoid the condition. Here are a few ideas:

Help retiring parents to prepare for change. Suggest they consider new activities in retirement that provide social interaction, a sense of purpose, continuing participation, and even an income. If an income isn’t a necessity, then volunteering in the community is a meaningful way to pass time and can bring great rewards. But be supportive if they want to continue working.

Encourage parents to maintain positive social relationships with family and friends. Secure and supportive relationships with family, friends and even pets are vital to mental well-being.

Be available and willing to talk about parents’ problems and concerns. Make “having a good chat” a regular event, so any need for help – emotional, physical or financial – comes up naturally in conversation.

Ask for help yourself. If you really could do with an extra pair of hands to help with children, the home or the garden, for example, your parents may be more than willing to take on some tasks.

Help your parents keep in touch. It’s easy for older people to fall back on annual Christmas cards as age makes travel and mobility harder. Help out by offering to set up email, Skype, Facebook or other social media (or ask your children to do it!). Explore other forms of communication technology that are easy to use as hearing gets harder and parents start to use aids. Be patient. It takes time for all of us to learn new technology!

Share physical activity. Staying active and sleeping well are proven to help mental health. Walking, gardening, Tai Chi or Pilates, and dancing are all great ways to exercise and they don’t have to cost much. Local councils often arrange groups for older people. Being outside, especially in gardens, parks and the countryside is shown to be beneficial to people’s mental health. There are also good chair-based exercises for people with very limited mobility.

Share mental activity. Tackle crosswords together, share jigsaws, learn a new skill – offer your parent ways to keep mentally agile and have company at the same time.

Support personal needs and feelings. Being able to support your parent’s beliefs and lifestyle choices can help ensure that growing old can be an enjoyable time as well as assist people face the challenges of ageing.

Be aware of your perceptions of your parent’s capabilities. Even if a parent has a chronic physical condition, they may see themselves as being far more capable than you or your children give them credit for. In fact discrimination against older people generally across society is a major contributor to depression, so we could all help to support change and think about our attitudes towards older people.

Help parents to eat well. Make sharing food and drink a social experience and help parents to eat well without insisting only on healthy eating. Lack of interest in food and depression are closely linked, so helping out with the preparation and cooking of enjoyable meals is a good plan.

Understand their need to remain independent. You may often feel your parents would be better cared for if they could move closer to you or accept help in the home. You may also feel safer if they come to a point where they stop driving. These are all major milestones in your parents’ lives, and you can help by supporting independence for as long as possible, if that’s what they choose.

Encourage parents not to feel they have to scrimp and save. Holiday, home repairs and improvements or even a new wardrobe can be uplifting for many. Some parents feel they have to save their cash as an inheritance for their children – but do they? At the other end of the scale, you can help to make sure they are claiming all the benefits they can, and not letting pride stand in the way.

Kathy Lawrence is a freelance writer and the editor of When They Get Older.

If you’d like to find out more about good mental health and avoiding depression in later life, the Mental Health Foundation publishes some useful advice and reports. You can download these free of charge:

At When They Get Older we’ve put together many tips that we know work to help our parents avoid feeling isolated in our own free Loneliness Guide.

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