When you get old, why wouldn’t you get depressed? That’s what people tell social worker Michael Friedman, L.M.S.W, at dinner parties. Friedman, one of Sharecare’s top 10 online influencers in the area of depression, focuses on mental health policy and especially the mental health needs of older adults.
Contrary to popular belief, says Friedman, older folks are no more prone to depression than their younger counterparts. In fact, they are less likely to have major depressive disorder. His message: It’s not normal to be depressed as an older person, and if you are, you should do something about it.
That said, a percentage of the overall population does suffer from mental health issues, and as America ages—by the year 2030 there will be about as many people 65 and older as kids under 18—the “elder boom” will mean more older adults with depression and, what’s more common, anxiety. And our mental and physical healthcare systems should get prepared.
How to Be Happy in Old Age
If your older years are still ahead of you, you can take steps now to get “psychologically prepared” to get old. How? “Freud’s answer is love and work, which is not a bad answer,” says Friedman.
“Most people are looking forward to something, have hopes and ambitions,” says Friedman. “As we get older, we need to get more satisfaction from the past. Being able to look back with pride is important.” That usually means having meaningful work of some sort and relationships with people you care about.
If you’re heading toward retirement, the key is having a plan that enables you to stay active and involved, says Friedman, who is retired but still writes, teaches, plays jazz piano and takes photographs.
Dealing with Dementia
Happiness in old age also depends in part on health. The rate of dementia doubles every 5 years beginning at age 60, and half of people who are 85 will have some form of it, says Friedman. It’s common for those with Alzheimer’s disease to experience depression, fearfulness and apathy (one of the symptoms of major depression), says Friedman, who advocates for better mental healthcare people with dementia and their caregivers.
That said, having dementia doesn’t necessarily mean forfeiting happiness.
“Many people regard Alzheimer’s with total horror,” says Friedman. “I used to say to my wife, ‘just shoot me if I ever get dementia.’ People feel it’s just so awful that they don’t want to live. But the fact is, a lot of people who have dementia do want to live. It’s quite clear that there are some people with dementia who lead lives that they find relatively satisfying.”
Caring for Caregivers
Much of the burden that comes with a dementia diagnosis falls on the caregivers—something Friedman knows about firsthand. Caregiving is “hugely stressful,” says Friedman, and it increases the risk for depression and anxiety. But with the right psychological support, such as counseling, caregivers can reduce their risk. Strategies like counseling can even help people keep their family member home up to 18 months longer.
Critically important to easing caregiver stress is getting family members on the same page. “It’s not unusual for other family members to offer a great deal of advice and very little help,” says Friedman. It may be a good idea to bring whole family in for therapy, or for the caregiver to find a support group.
“Human life is often difficult, but it is also filled with opportunities,” says Friedman. “A sense of humor helps, too.”
How do you plan on aging gracefully? Sharecare would love to hear your strategies.
Join the largest health conversation in 140 characters or less! Tweet what you want to talk about to @SharecareNow and let’s start chatting!
File under: Expert Spotlight