Recognizing depression in a parent can be more difficult than we might expect. It is easy to miss less obvious signs, or we may resist the idea because we want our parents to always be there for us to lean on. At the same time, our parents may hide feelings of depression out of dread, fearing the loss of control over their lives.
Depression is more than loss or grieving. As our parents age, the sad fact is they lose more and more of what their lives were all about. Spouses, friends, and family members pass away. They may retire from a career that they believe formed their identity, and they may see the rest of their lives as dark and increasingly brief.
Grief takes time, and we need to allow our parents time to heal. But if healing doesn’t seem to be happening, we may need to examine what else is going on. Have their habits changed? Have they given up activities they always enjoyed? Are they less communicative than they were before? Do they suddenly view your interest as interfering?
Get to know your parents again. Even if we live in the same city as our parents, when we move out as young adults we form new lives, raise our own families, we change and we grow. Yet we may still expect our parents to be exactly like when we were children.
We may forget that the people who taught how to walk, learn addition, ride a bike, and wiped our tears when we fell or faced disappointment, have grown and changed as well. Time spent sitting down with them, and learning how they feel today can give you a better perspective, and reassure them that you still care. They may be depressed, or they may just miss you and are afraid to say so.
Be aware of significant changes. If your parent has always been an introverted bookworm, then a lack of social activities may be nothing to worry about. You can still encourage making a few new friends, or take her out more often. But if she was once gregarious and now stays at home in her bathrobe, then action may be required.
Encourage a visit to her family doctor. Parents can be highly skeptical of anything to do with mental health treatment, but willing to visit a doctor they know well. Volunteer to drive, but don’t follow her into the doctor’s examining area unless invited. Parents still need their privacy and decision making control. If you have serious concerns, speak to the doctor yourself before hand, and share behavioral changes you have observed.
Anger, hoarding, and other unexpected clues. People tend to expect depression to show up as a loss of interest and a withdrawal from the world. So it can be a shock if depressed parents react to gentle inquiries about their health with angry, even vicious, retorts. Aging can bring fear about the future…a future of illness, nursing homes, or outliving one’s resources. Depression amplifies those fears, and can cause those we love to lash out at anyone they see as trying to take control.
Or, they may smile…all the time…and say everything is fine. But when you visit you see they are living in chaos, which they seem totally unaware of. All is fine, until you try to help clean it up. A move to throw out something broken and worthless can ignite fury over your right to even be there, as your parent tries to replace the time and people they feel have deserted them, by hanging on to piles of junk.
Get help for yourself to handle the tough challenges. Whether you have a parent whose depression makes them inert, or manifests itself in anger and resentment toward you, you need people on your side. A minister, counselor, or support group can keep you from taking on guilt about how your parent feels, or becoming overwhelmed under their wrath.
Community health services or mental health clinics can be excellent places for referrals and information. Your parent may listen to a professional counselor when she won’t listen to you. Paying to have someone visit your parent’s home may be the only way to get through.
An important warning. If you hear your parent ever speak about having no reason to live anymore, get help now. Deep depression is not going to be overcome with chats at the kitchen table. Help is out there, and can make a world of difference, so those we love can lead long and happier lives.
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