Dealing with a loved one’s depression

Enloe’s Kristin Swanson

Enloe’s Kristin Swanson

Photo By Marisol Salgado

A group of three elderly friends, known as “The Bored” at Sierra Sunrise retirement community, used to meet daily for their “Bored” meeting where they would talk about themselves, others, the world and their families. But mostly they would let off steam.

Kristin Swanson’s late mother, Elaine Stanton Borgeson, was a bright, creative and outspoken woman, and she was part of “The Bored” until she became too feeble to stay in the retirement facility and moved in with Swanson. Elaine was a journalist and an artist, but losing her vision kept her from the activities that she knew so well.

For the 10 years she was her mother’s caregiver, Swanson said, her own life looked bleak at times. “But looking back on it, I learned from my mother during those years,” she said. Most of all, she said, she learned that life will not always be about oneself.

A social worker for Enloe Behavioral Health, Swanson incorporated stories about her mother as she presented “Addressing the Needs of Depression in the Elderly: How to Help Your Parent, Spouse or Friend” on Tuesday afternoon at the Enloe Conference Center.

May is Mental Health Month, and Swanson’s presentation was part of the Women’s Wellness Brown Bag Lunch series and Enloe Behavioral Health’s efforts to increase awareness about depression.

“At some point in our lives, we will be faced with depression, whether it affects us, our family members or our friends,” Swanson said to a group of about 35 people. “It is something that we cannot hide from any longer.”

Professionally, mental and physical assessments must be made when an elderly person seems depressed, Swanson said. For a caregiver or family member, however, coping with a depressed parent, spouse or friend requires organization, understanding, and the ability to ask for help when necessary.

For the affected elderly person, depression causes irrational or suicidal thoughts, loss of appetite, fatigue, anxiety and substance dependence or misuse in addition to other possible symptoms.

“Having babies, raising children and growing old is hard,” Swanson said. Changes in everyday abilities like bathing, cooking or medication management are often accompanied by thoughts of worthlessness, a cognitive characteristic of depression in the elderly, she said.

For an elderly person the beginning of frailty can mean the loss of hearing, energy, memory and, as with Swanson’s mother, vision.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Well you’re just getting older,'” Swanson said.

Becoming frail causes an elderly person to feel helpless and hopeless, which turns into “learned helplessness,” Swanson continued. However, there are ways of managing helplessness in an elderly person, through behavioral techniques such as relaxation and moderate levels of exercise, depending on the circumstances.

David Swanson, Kristin’s husband and a Chico State University professor, concluded the presentation by addressing the importance of spirituality in the elderly. “We experience our spiritual sense through our minds,” he said. “But if we can no longer do that, we can become isolated socially.”

When her mother died, on Mar. 27, at the age of 92, Swanson chose to hold the memorial service at Sierra Sunrise. The two remaining members of “The Bored” presented Swanson with three carnations representing their group of friends. Two carnations were red and one was white—representing her mother.

“She was my teacher; then I became her teacher, and together we shared love,” Swanson said as she took a moment to remember her mother.

Kristin Swanson is confident that depression in the elderly is treatable if the problem is recognized, she said. “We can change depression; it just takes hard work, guts and humbleness.”