“Why is depression more pronounced as one ages? Can I avoid this?”
Recent studies have identified loneliness as a potential killer of the elderly. Indeed, some studies suggest that loneliness kills more people in the West than smoking-related deaths.
In the UK for example, up to 30 percent of senior citizens are classified as lonely, a condition that affects their life in many ways. Some have impaired memory, others physical ailments while for yet others, death comes early for various reasons.
Sadly, not many people realise that many conditions for which they take their parents to the doctors for are due to loneliness. Recent research has linked hypertension, diabetes, obesity, weakened immune systems, depression and anxiety to loneliness. For the removal of doubt, loneliness makes all the above conditions more difficult to diagnose and, more seriously, difficult to manage. However, a person can suffer from loneliness at any age.
A man brought his wife for evaluation of what was clearly a depressive illness. The 35-year-old mother of two had developed a depressive illness and was admitted to a clinic for two weeks.
On the day of discharge, she asked the doctor to speak to her husband about what might have caused her depression. The doctor obliged and explained to the 40-year-old husband that his father was at least in part to blame. The man had stayed in the son’s house since his wife left for the United States.
Shocked, the young man wanted an explanation. Soon he sought a second opinion because in his opinion the first doctor was influenced by his wife. The second psychiatrist arrived at the same conclusion. His wife was depressed because she could no longer cope with three generations of people in her two-bedroom flat in Kilimani. Worst of all, she had become frigid because while her father-in-law was in the house, sex was a no-no. The presence of the old man in the flat had led to a serious marital problem.
He put pressure on her and she became colder and more frigid. A complicated marital problem arose where there had been none.
The second doctor helped them find a solution; why not send the old man to the US where his wife had gone to be with his daughter who had a baby. The old man who had by then run a huge medical bill blossomed. He quickly went back to the village, put his house in order, and soon had no time for doctors’ appointments in Nairobi.
Headaches were things of the past, his slow rather irritating walk and speech were replaced by optimistic talk about life with his wife in the US.
Looking back, the family had failed to understand the nature of growing old. He and his wife had been married for 50 years. It was their youngest daughter who had caused the disruption by getting a baby and calling for her mother to come and help her around.
The family had called in a young grandchild to look after the old man. The boy preferred the company of girls and left early in the morning and came home after dark. The old man discovered that in the flat in Kilimani, his grandchild gave him company. His daughter-in-law was a great cook. The headaches kept him in the city.
The simple diagnosis on this seemingly complex case was that we had a lonely man in Nyamira who got better when he got to New Jersey. Old men with wives must be together for the sake of well-being.
Depression is common in all age groups not just the elderly. It is, however, more complex in the elderly and leads to suicide. Part of its complications and difficulties in diagnosis arise from the fact of an ageing brain. That is why perhaps you have observed that depression is more pronounced as one ages.
The take-home message here is that loneliness causes depression and death in some elderly people. Consult a mental health expert if in doubt.