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Take Heed Of Depression In Elderly

Hong Kong has the World’s Longest Life Expectancy – We Should Not Overlook Elderly Depression 

Speaking About the Past Helps Elderly Regulate their Emotions

The life expectancy of Hong Kong people is increasing. According to a survey from Japan, the average male life expectancy in Hong Kong is 82 years and the average female life expectancy is 88 years. This puts Hong Kong at the top of global ranking in the area of longest life expectancy. Although becoming a centenarian is highly probable, it can be a concern as over 10 percent of the elderly in Hong Kong experience depressive symptoms. Many people think that it is normal for the elderly to feel down as this population tends to be affected by the ailments and the loneliness that accompany aging. This belief often leads to delay in bringing to the attention the needs of the elderly, and receive appropriate medical treatments. To ensure that our elderly enjoy a good quality of life, other than seeking help, we can also learn ways to help them relieve their emotional distress.

Why do many elderly experience depressive symptoms? Often, these symptoms are triggered by matters that worry them, such as financial concerns after retirement, deterioration in bodily functions, illnesses, or the death of their spouses or close friends. These issues remind the elderly of their own aging, losing their capabilities and that they are becoming more dependent on others, hence causing them to feel that they are a burden to others, which cause them to feel depressed. Also, the elderly may be depressed because they cannot accept the physical changes in their physical functioning.

Dormant Depression Manifests During Late Life

In some cases, depression may have been dormant for many years but manifests during late life. Many of the elderly here in Hong Kong have experienced a difficult past. They fled China and landed in Hong Kong as refugees and have lived through ordeals such as the Japanese occupation in China, World War II, and the Cultural Revolution, etc. They have also witnessed changes in society, experienced poverty, and hardships. As the elderly reach the final stage in their lives, but do not have the chance to address and work through the negative emotions they had experienced from their past difficulties.  These accumulated emotions become suppressed. Some elderly are also unable to let go of their guilt and regrets from a past mistake, burying that remorse at the bottom of their heart.

The elderly typically tend to hide their emotions and there are also elderly who may not know how to express their feelings. Family members should watch out for any changes in them: prolonged sadness, poor appetite, lack in motivation, difficulty sleeping or constantly wanting to sleep, bad-tempered, and not willing to talk, or constantly mention about being weary of life, etc. If family members sense that something is not quite right with an elderly, it is advisable to seek help from professional psychological counsellors.

Accompanying the Elderly, and be an Active Listener Work Best

To help the elderly regulate their emotions, a counsellor suggests the following: expose the elderly to nature, encourage them to draw, paint, play an instrument, participate in social activities, learn something new, do something related to their religion, such as reading or watching religious materials. But in fact, the love and caring provided by their family members work the best, as are keeping the elderly company and be an active listener to their stories and needs. Family members should also proactively assist them in addressing the difficulties they face. Given that the elderly have rich personal histories, it might be a good idea to invite them to share their stories. And, in the process of narrating their stories, which involves a process of re-working the materials, it would be as if the elderly is given the opportunity to re-organize their life history one more time. This is one good way of ventilating one’s depressed mood.  

Stories on how they survived the dark during their challenging journey to Hong Kong, how they survived on tree bark during the war, etc. are the past that the elderly are proud of. While the elderly enjoy sharing such past events, these conversations also help them regain a sense of worth. At the same time, it gives us, the younger generation, an opportunity to learn about our roots, thus such storytelling is also a good form of intergenerational interactions.

Be a Little More Patient

The Chinese have a saying “久病床前無孝子”, which describes that when parents are sick for long period of time, even their most filial child can become frustrated and find it unbearable. We need to recognise that it takes time to fully recover from elderly depression. Furthermore, because the elderly tend to repeat themselves and can get stubborn, these can stretch the patience of their children and grandchildren. When you feel annoyed and discouraged by an elderly at home, remember how patiently he or she answered your endless questioning when you were young. Also, remember the love he or she showered on you.

Causes of Depression in the Elderly

  1. Genetics
  2. Traumatic experiences when growing up 
  3. A tendency to be pessimistic
  4. Under stress or being provoked by others
  5. A decline in bodily functions or illness
  6. History of depression
  7. Living in an overcrowded condition, experiencing loneliness and lack of support
  8. Imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain

The Companions
Amoy Ong