Many people believe that the suicide rate increases during the holidays. Actually, research shows that that is just a myth, promoted by media. The CDC reports an analysis found 50% of articles written during the 2009-2010 holiday season perpetuated the myth (CDC, 2011). December actually has fewer suicides, and some studies suggest that Christmas adds a “protective” factor through the holidays. Suicide actually peaks in the spring and the fall.
Depression, mood disorders, and substance abuse do increase during December. Social isolation is the biggest predictor of depression during this time of the year. Many of our elderly or disabled patients feel disconnected, excluded, or even overwhelmed with holiday activities.
An increased sense of loss during the holidays can also contribute to seasonal depression in seniors. While there are many positive memories that accompany the holidays, it can also be the time of year when seniors struggle most with the loss of family members, traditions, and independence.
What can you do to help?
Regular visits from home health clinicians and aides can have a great impact on the mental state of seniors who aren’t able to get out of the house as much as they used to. Those visits can sometimes be their main source of social interaction. Low light levels during winter months can worsen seasonal depression. Open the blinds or put a higher wattage light bulb in the lamp where they often sit. Going for a short walk (even if just to the porch) during visits on sunny days can also provide a little exercise which also combats depression, as does eating a healthy diet. Asking about their hobby projects can encourage them to stay engaged, and activities such as word searches and puzzles relieve boredom while providing mental exercise.
Of course, depression is a true and treatable medical condition, like diabetes or hypertension. About 2 million older adults in the United States suffer from full-blown depression, and another 5 million suffer from less severe forms of the illness (National Institute on Aging). Chronic illness is also linked directly to depression. If symptoms last for an extended period of time, notify the patient’s primary care physician. Anti-depression drugs, psychotherapy, or a combination of both may be needed.
If a patient is in crisis, seek help immediately by calling 911, visiting a nearby emergency department or health care provider’s office, or calling the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255); TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889) to talk to a trained counselor.
Depression-Related Advice & Resources:
- Depression Recovery Toolkit (The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation)
- 8 Ways to Brighten Lonely Holidays for Senior Loved Ones (Senior Care Corner)
- One Woman’s Experience with Depression (National Institute on Aging)
- Depression in Older Adults and the Elderly (Helpguide.org)
- Helping a Depressed Person (Helpguide.org)