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Later Life Guide

Health issues and concerns of older adults: solutions, strategies, and support

Caring for our minds is a crucial part of healthy aging.

Portrait of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Library of Congress

In a 2018 AARP survey, roughly one-third of adults 45+ (and nearly half of all adults with lower incomes) reported feeling lonely. The most significant factors contributing to feelings of loneliness, according to that study, were: physical isolation and having a smaller network of friends and family. Other significant factors were being single, being depressed or anxious, or chronic illness. It's a feedback process, though - chronic loneliness can lead to chronic health problems.

The good news, though, is that we can take steps to cope with loneliness and to reach out for social support.

Reach Out - Despite COVID

Please reach out for help, to friends, family, and/or to the resources linked here. Even if we can't be physically close to each other, we can still be here fo each other. Telephones still work (thank goodness!), and text and electronic mail still connect us. Social media - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the rest - can be a big help but they can also be a big problem because we're easily overwhelmed in this time. Better to connect directly with family and friends. The free versions of video tools like SkypeZoomFaceTime will let us see each other, too.

Sometimes, though, friends and family are not enough. When that happens, you can reach out to these resources.

Got a worry or concern? You don't have to wait until it becomes a full-blown disaster to get emotional support! Talk to someone before it gets to that point. You can call or chat 24/7 with the California statewide Warm Line at 1-855-845-7415 or one of these other resources.

Hotlines or HelpLines can refer you to helpful resources, including some you might not know about:

Coping with Grief and Loss

There is no "normal" way to do grief, though; each situation is different. Hard loss or deep grief can look a lot like major depression, at least for awhile. If grief or loss make it hard to function, try to reach out for help, as suggested here:

Depression, Short-term vs. Chronic 

While being depressed is not the same thing as being lonely, they are certainly related - and they reinforce each other in negative ways. Like being lonely, being depressed is a matter of concern only when it becomes chronic (feeling that way all the time for months.)

Signs and symptoms of depression vary from person to person. Look for changes in your mood or in your interest in participating in activities.

Depression can have many of the same ill effects as lack of sleep - problems paying attention, making decisions, or with memory; fatigue and lower immune function; difficulties making decisions or taking action. That can make it more difficult for the depressed person to get treatment.

If you believe a loved one is depressed, here are ways you may be able to help - or help them to help themselves.

What Works to Ease Depression?

What Works to Ease Depression?

More than one approach, and time, may be needed to push through depression. 

Physical activity is key for most people. One recent study found that "activity is 1.5 times more effective at reducing mild-to-moderate symptoms of depression, psychological stress, and anxiety than medication or cognitive behavior therapy [alone]". The type of activity did not seem to make a difference in that research study, although shorter periods of higher-intensity exercise had the most benefit. At the same time, other studies found that just walking regularly has similar effects. Yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and other practices that combine movement with mindfulness can be effective too. Activities that include other people can also combat the loneliness and social isolation that make depression worse.

Bottom line: choose whatever activities work for you.

Mindfulness practices ease anxiety-fueled depression.

Creative activities and other healthy pleasures (like listening to music, watching art, or just being in nature) are powerful mood-lifters.

Counseling and talk therapies can help with more stubborn depression, as well as shine a light on patterns of behavior that don't serve us well. Finding the right therapist is important - see the section on Seeking a Therapist in our collection on Better Communication with Health Professionals for how-to information.

Medications - including prescription antidepressants, herbs, or supplements - may be needed to shift longer-lasting or more severe depression. But at the same time, as explained below, other medications (and some medical conditions) can cause depression as a side effect. Be sure to discuss with your health care team before starting medication (even over the counter products) for depression, and before stopping any medications.

In cases of stubborn, treatment-resistant or crippling depression, stimulating the brain with magnetic or electronic impulses may give some relief.

When Depression and Illness Come Together

Clinical or major depression has complicated relationships with other illnesses. Besides making it difficult for people to seek treatment, it can also be tied to poorer prognosis for any disease.

Current research also suggests that depression may be a symptom of cardiac disease or dementia (and perhaps other diseases as well).

Certainly if someone has a serious illness (like cancer), or has chronic pain, they may become depressed as a result. Besides other treatments for depression, better pain control or palliative care may be needed.

But then there are some medications that have depression as a common side effect. If you think this might be the case, DON'T STOP taking that medication, but talk with your health care team to see if adjusting the dose will improve mental state.

Depression can become a serious problem for people who are caring for others. If you, or family members or friends are struggling with this, please see our online collection of Caregiving Resources (in this series) for links to sources of support.

Bottom line: chronic or major depression is NOT a normal part of aging, and it can be treated.

Thinking about ending it?

If you are - or a loved one is - thinking about suicide, reach out for help. 

Help is available in Santa Clara County several ways, including:

  •  Free and confidential Suicide & Crisis Hotline, available 24/7. Call 1-855-278-4204 or text the word: RENEW to 74174
  • Mental Health Urgent Care Center open Mondays through Sundays 8am - 10pm.  Call: 408-885-7855 or walk-in to 871 Enborg Court, San José CA 95128.

The text on this page is copyright PlaneTree Health Library, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Linked contents are the responsibility of their creators or copyright holders.