One of the most common issues our honored elders struggle with is depression. Anyone at any age can become depressed, but depression among the elderly is more widespread. There are several reasons this occurs, some of the most common include:
- Loss of Loved Ones: Seniors tend to experience bereavement on a regular basis. During their golden years, those they have been close to for a long time start to die. Losing siblings, long-time friends, spouses or partners, and even pets takes a major emotional toll that most younger people have a hard time relating to.
- Feelings of Purposelessness: For many people, their work is part of their identity. So when they retire and start to experience physical limitations, they begin to feel less useful and like they are no longer contributing to society.
- Health Problems: As we grow older, we inevitably begin to develop more health concerns. As our health deteriorates, there is a tendency to become depressed over the things that we can no longer do.
- Loneliness: Many seniors feel increasingly isolated and alone. Loss of loved ones, a dwindling social network, and less frequent visits by children and other family members contribute to feelings that nobody cares about them anymore.
- Fears of the Future: In addition to becoming depressed over their current conditions, seniors also tend to fear an uncertain future. As they see others who they have been so close to pass on, they wonder when that day may come for them, and become anxious over the dying process.
Exercise vs. Medication for Treating Depression
Roughly one in four elderly individuals experience prolonged periods of sadness (at least two weeks or longer), and around 15% will become clinically depressed at some point. Antidepressants have long been used to treat depression among the elderly, but there has always been a major concern about the side effects. Because seniors typically take multiple other medications for various health conditions, antidepressants sometimes adversely interact with these medications.
ABC News reported on a study by Duke University on the effects of exercise in relieving the symptoms of depression. Researchers studied 156 patients over the age of 50 who were severely depressed. The study found that after 16 weeks, the group that did exercise only improved significantly compared to the group that took medication alone and the group that combined the two.
Depression returned in only 8% of those in the exercise-only group compared with 38% in the medication-only group and 31% in the combined group.
“If exercise could be put in a pill it would be the number one anti-aging medicine and the number one anti-depression medicine,” says Dr. Robert N. Butler, President of the International Longevity Center at Mount Sinai Medical School in NYC.
What Types of Exercises are Most Beneficial for the Elderly
Though exercise has been shown to help seniors in this study without the potentially harmful side effects of medication, the elderly need to be very cautious about which exercises they choose. With increasingly severe health conditions, there is a greater risk of overexerting themselves. Before beginning any type of exercise routine, always consult a qualified physician first; this is good advice at any age, but especially when individuals reach their golden years.
In the Duke study, participants walked for 30 minutes, three times a week. For many seniors, this is a moderate amount of exercise that they should be able to perform. For some, however, 30 minutes may be too much. You may want to start out with 5-10 minutes a day and monitor your progress and tolerance level as you gradually work your way up to the goal of 30 minutes.
Walking is not necessarily the only exercise that is helpful for seniors. Many have found great benefits with yoga, tai chi, water aerobics, and other low-impact exercises. You may also choose to combine a cardio exercise with light weight training for a more holistic workout routine. The key is to incorporate exercises that you enjoy, and that you are physically able to perform.
Exercise is Not a Magic Bullet
It is important to note that not all seniors can benefit from exercise. Some have severe health conditions that make it impossible for them to perform any amount of exercise, others who face a major battle with depression find it difficult to stay motivated and stick to an exercise routine. For the latter group, children and other close relatives can help by encouraging them and even offering to do the exercises with them.