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Guest Blog: Depression in Elderly Adults

Mary MacCarthy

Note: This is the first of a series of guest blogs on important topics on art and aging from experts in various fields. We are excited to share this blog by Janet Sterk, MA, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. 

Depression is a topic that is often difficult to talk about, no matter the age or situation.  And it is frequently overlooked in elderly adults.

Symptoms of depression include loss of interest or pleasure in activities, isolation and withdrawal, a decrease in energy, difficulty making decisions, feeling hopeless and worthless, feeling like ones’ life doesn’t make a difference, sleep disturbance – either sleeping more or interrupted sleeping, thinking about death, or even wishing one wasn’t alive. These criteria are used in screening for depression, no matter what age the person might be. However, these signs of depression are often overlooked in the elderly because they are too often seen as a normal part of the developmental stage of aging.

As one ages, there are often physical and cognitive limitations that gradually reduce the ability of the older adult to engage and connect with others. Losing significant loved ones often exacerbates the condition and reduces their support network.

The good news is that studies are beginning to show that the depression that often accompanies these inevitable issues as we get older can be reversed or avoided altogether. The answer? Although medication is often helpful, the ultimate answer lies in human connection and touch.

Researchers have identified oxytocin, often associated with the mother-child bonding which is critical in human development, is essential for all ages. Oxytocin is produced through a variety of touch and social connections and triggers the release of serotonin which, through a series of neuro-connectivity processes, activates the reward circuitry in the brain and results in feelings of happiness and contentment.

Studies have shown that elderly adults often experience a lack of one-on-one or even group connections with other humans.  Companionship, touch, conversations, group singing, dancing, group or one on one creative activity, all tend to stimulate the natural production of oxytocin and thus decrease the feelings of isolation and worthlessness. Researchers have long known the essential nature of touch for the development of the infant and toddler and how important it is for all humans, at any stage. And yet, the elderly are often rarely touched. Too often, our aging population is isolated and extremely lonely.

Finding time to connect in meaningful ways with our older friends and relatives is essential for their well being and can be very helpful in our own lives. If you take the time to massage lotion into the feet and/or hands of an older adult, or hold their hands while sitting or walking, you both produce oxytocin, and thus you both increase your levels of connection and happiness.

We humans are not meant to be isolated and alone. We are meant to tend and befriend. When you engage an older adult in telling their stories of their lives, there is often a deep connection, sometimes accompanied by laughter and maybe tears. This is healing to the soul, and relieves feelings of isolation and worthlessness – so often associated with depression. When you bring cookies, go for a walk, talk about current events, cut their nails, brush or curl their hair, bring them flowers, take them to the conservatory, read them poetry or just bring them a box of LOVE items that they can take out and hold over and over, you have helped them increase their levels of oxytocin and have stimulated a sense of connection and happiness.

Bringing attention to the primary care provider when we recognize symptoms of depression in our loved ones is an important step. Many illnesses and some medications can cause or exacerbate symptoms of depression. Often older adults can benefit from antidepressant medication. However, the most important element is the oldest known intervention in the life of humans. Human connection, touch and relationship are healing balms to the head and heart.

by Janet Sterk, MA, LMFT

To learn about Janet and connect with her, visit