How to Help a Senior Struggling with Depression

senior with depression

One might assume that living to a ripe old age would be a rite of passage of sorts, a celebratory milestone marked by decades of experience, wisdom and longevity. For some, it is. For others, however, it is an entrée into depression. In fact, according to the National Council on Aging, 85 and above is the age group most likely to develop debilitating depression.

The good news is, there are several ways to support an elderly loved one beset by this serious condition. Ultimately, understanding why a senior you love may be depressed goes a long way toward helping to lift the fog.

Why Are Seniors at Risk for Depression?


Many seniors live alone, with limited means to get out and socialize. They have lost spouses, friends, neighbors, doctors, and other associates. As a result, they are highly susceptible to feelings of loneliness and isolation. While some have family nearby, perhaps even living with them, seniors often miss the people in their peer group with whom they shared past experiences and regular conversations. Even if friends are still alive, getting out to see them can be increasingly difficult.


Whether because of bodily limitations or transportation constraints, or both, many seniors are not as able to do as much or get around as well as they once did. The loss of a driver’s license is particularly devastating to older adults.

Lack of Independence

As we age, we are naturally less able to do for ourselves. Declining physical health, unstable balance, falls, memory loss, dementia, impaired mobility, frailty…all these factors and more contribute to greater reliance on others. Many seniors struggle not only with the trappings of compromised self-sufficiency, but also feelings of helplessness and guilt for imposing on others.

Lack of Purpose

Retirement, lack of dependent children, empty calendars, failing memory, weakening faculties are just some of the contributors to a sense of insignificance among the elderly. Add to that ageism, so prevalent in our youth-obsessed culture, and it’s easy to understand why seniors can become despondent.

Fear of the Future

Even the healthiest seniors know that they’ve lived many more years than they have left. Fearfulness of what is to come – be it increased physical or cognitive decline, financial threats, living arrangements, decreased security, death of self or loved ones, burden upon others – can lead to prolonged anxiety and depression.

Substance Abuse

It may surprise some to learn that substance abuse among the elderly is on the rise. Reasons include: more drugs (some of which are addictive) being prescribed to people in older age; age-related cognitive impairment causing accidental misuse; use of drugs to temporarily relieve chronic pain (generally more prevalent among older adults); and any of the above risk factors for depression. While drugs and alcohol can temporarily numb physical or emotional discomfort, it is well-documented that substance abuse can cause depression.

Sleep ProblemsInsomnia and irregular sleep-wake cycles are common among older people. As insomnia significantly increases the likelihood of depression – the two are closely linked – seniors are more at risk for sleep-related depression.

Let’s examine the contributing factors of depression and corresponding support tactics.

How Can You Help Your Senior Combat…


The key – and obvious – elixir to a senior’s loneliness is spending quality time with them. As COVID restrictions have lifted, face-to-face visits and outings are more feasible. If possible and not a risk to your senior’s health, include other family members and friends. Schedule frequent, specific dates and times (resist vague words like “we’ll get together soon”), and also make sure these visits are prominently on their calendar where they can see and eagerly await them.

Offer to drive your loved one to call on friends and other associates whom they may not be able to get to on their own.

In addition to in-person social calls (or in place of, if face-to-face visits are not possible), telephone your loved one at least every few days, and teach them how to use videoconferencing tools with written, step-by-step instructions.


Whenever possible, be your senior’s hands, feet, eyes, and ears. Drive them on social calls, local outings, doctor’s appointments, and errands. Offer a literal arm to lean on, doing so with patience and respect for their limitations and desire to move on their own.

Cook them tasty, healthy meals they can freeze and heat up in the oven or microwave.

Research and arrange transportation on behalf of your loved one. Here in Chester County, there are several transportation services for seniors at greatly reduced rates. 

If your senior possesses a vehicle and a driver’s license, offer to ride along as their passenger. This will not only keep them company, but it will also give you valuable insight into their ability to drive safely. If you have concerns, talking to your senior about driving is imperative. Keep in mind, unless vehicular harm is imminent, it is best not to have this conversation while they are driving.

Lack of Independence/Purpose

Whatever level of help your senior needs, or how it is provided, it’s important to focus on what they can do, not what they can’t. As much as possible, engage them in activities and conversations to which they can meaningfully contribute. As we do at Barclay Friends, offer them choices by “doing with” rather than “doing for.” 

Investigate equipment and services that can assist your older adult with everyday tasks, such as scooters, stair and chair lifts, bath and shower implements, and online grocery or other delivery services. Offer to explore options and help them create online accounts to manage on their own, if possible.

Encourage them to volunteer as they are able – countless organizations need the help of older adults, and the benefits of volunteering to seniors themselves are equally countless.

Explore activities or gatherings that offer intellectual, spiritual or philosophical value such as book discussions, in-person or online courses, nature studies, meditation, and faith-based groups.

Whatever their limitations, remember that your loved one has lived an entire life, full of invaluable experiences and precious insight. Ask them questions; listen to what they have to say. Tell them specifically what you love about them and why they are important to you and the world. Offer to help them write their life story; record it for posterity.

Fear of the Future

Research relevant agents that can guide or advise your loved one – medical professionals, financial advisors, estate planners, attorneys, grief counselors, clergy, and senior living representatives. A teammate to help iron out the wrinkles of worry is invaluable to an anxious senior.

Listen compassionately. Even if you can’t do anything specific to affect a future outcome, it can be immensely comforting for older people to talk through their concerns with someone who cares about them.

Substance Abuse/Sleep Problems

Seek professional help for your beloved senior. As noted, substance dependency and sleep troubles are not uncommon among the elderly, and the two are often intertwined with depression. “Evil triplets,” you might say. Proper medication intake often requires the help of a professional. And, while there are ways to promote healthy sleep habits in seniors, chronic insomnia is also the bailiwick of a medical expert. Seniors struggling with depression exacerbated by substance misuse and/or unhealthy sleep need trained help that a trusted loved one can seek on their behalf.  

How Can Senior Living Help?

Quality senior living means regular, meaningful socialization, 24/7 safety and security, engaging and ongoing activities, nutritious, delicious communal dining, ‘round the clock help and healthcare as needed, as well as infinite freedom to do what residents choose to do, not what they have to do.

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