Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

A Blue Christmas: Providing “comfort and joy” to seniors during the holidays.

The holidays are upon us and likely filled with traditions that include family and friends.

Although the season evokes nostalgia and good tidings for most, they are not necessarily merry and bright for all. In fact, for some people, they can do the opposite. This is especially true for the older population.

While depression usually arises in young adulthood, it is also common among older adults. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 7 million American adults over the age of 65 experience depression each year, and the National Institute of Mental Health considers depression in people age 65 and older to be a major public health problem.

By 2060, more than 98 million people will be senior citizens—half of them baby boomers who carry a higher predisposition to suicide than earlier generations, according to the American Psychological Association. In fact, the suicide rate in those 80 to 84 is more than twice that of the general population.

Not all hope is lost, however. Identifying the triggers, anticipating any hurdles, and otherwise knowing when it’s time to help can be a gift no matter what time of year.

Blues or Depression?
While aging can bring wisdom and experience, it also can bring inevitable losses and significant changes in one’s life. The passing of time and missing loved ones with whom seniors used to share memories become more apparent during this time of year. Additionally, declining health or energy levels and the inability to take care of oneself can result in the feeling of lost independence or purpose.

Sometimes, even the healthiest people struggle with these realities. The National Alliance on Mental Illness recently conducted a survey in which about 75 percent of respondents reported that the holidays contribute to feeling sad or dissatisfied. Among these, 68 percent felt financially strained, 66 percent experienced loneliness, 63 percent too much pressure, and 57 percent held unrealistic expectations.

Knowing the symptoms of depression versus the doldrums, which usually are temporary and mild, is important since depression is more serious and can be life threatening. If you recognize any of the following in a loved one for more than two weeks, seek professional support.

  • Sadness that won’t lift
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in doing things
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Frequent crying
  • Feeling restless or fidgety
  • Feeling worthless, helpless or guilty
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep or sleeping too much

Coping Tips
Fortunately, there are tips that can help one cope with the loneliness of the holidays.

Exercise in the form of a brisk walk is a great way to beat the depressing moments. Group exercise programs, it turns out, are a wonderfully effective way to reduce isolation and loneliness in seniors and provide the added benefit of improved physical and mental health. Many area gyms offer specific senior workout classes or programs designed to meet their needs and conditions.

Encourage a loved one or neighbor to help another in need by volunteering at a local shelter, church, store, museum or school. Volunteering is a rewarding activity, and seniors have a unique skill to share life experiences with their communities. It can also boost longevity and contribute to mental health and wellbeing. Suggesting a new class or training program in an old or new area of interest may also be a good distraction, as well as provide future outlets for socialization and purpose.

Extend invitations to celebrations and help others with cooking, cleaning, shopping or wrapping gifts. Take into account seniors’ needs with transportation, income and special diets. When you participate in these activities, you also provide an outlet for communication by listening and encouraging them to share their feelings of sadness or excitement. This is the time of year for connections, so make one.

Those family, friends and neighbors of older individuals should be on the lookout for changes in mood or behavior that may indicate depression. Keep a close eye on this person and check in from time to time. If they don’t live near, call to let them know you’re thinking about them or plan a visit. Human interaction, in addition to formal treatment approaches, can work wonders for an older adult dealing with depression and the holiday blues.

Amanullah Khan, MD, is a psychiatrist with UPMC Pinnacle Psychological Associates. For more information, visit

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