Seniors, Depression and the Value of Religious Practice


Depression affects some 6.5 million senior Americans, aged 65 and older. That translates to about 15% of the senior population in this country.

Despite the fact that depression in the elderly is prevalent, it is not normal.

Causes of Depression in the Elderly Population

Depression in the elderly is different from depression in the rest of the population. For most of the non-elderly population, depression is the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, exacerbated by stressors in a patient's life. In the elderly, depression is believed to be a psychological disorder, triggered by such stressors as medical illness and grief suffered due to the loss of a spouse or loved one.

As families age, they often grow apart, moving to different areas of the country, raising children and generally becoming busy with life. The senior members of these families can often begin to feel isolated or lacking a purpose to their lives, particularly when they are no longer employed. Their friends are aging as fast as they are, perhaps even passing on. They often lose their driving privileges, and are increasingly less social. This increasing isolation can trigger depression.

Results of Two Studies on Senior Depression and Religiosity

Two recent published studies by the same team of researchers offer insight into the benefits of organized religion and private prayer as a possible prevention of senior depression.

A newly published study conducted by the Gerontology Department of the John E. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies of the University of Massachusetts, Boston has determined that active religious participation by seniors results in improved mood and fewer diagnoses of depression.

According to the results of this observational study, published in the journal The Gerontologist, seniors who regularly attended religious services were less likely to report symptoms of depression. Moreover, those participants who had symptoms of depression at the start of the study were less likely to experience depressive episodes at the conclusion of the two year study if they regularly engaged in private prayer.

A previous study by the same group of researchers, published in The JAMA Psychiatry journal, found that spirituality might provide protection for the brain against depression.

Researchers acknowledge that the most important benefits of regular attendance by seniors at worship services are the sustaining of social networks and the reduction of isolation and loneliness. Private prayer, on the other hand, can result in a more hopeful outlook and may even allow the brain to develop cognitive resources that can strengthen the mind to resist depression.

What Can Be Done

It is important for caregivers to be aware of the impact loss of the ability to attend religious services can have on the elderly. A way to address existing depression in a senior might be to find a way for the senior to again attend services regularly. Some churches offer transportation to services. For others, family members or neighbors might be prevailed upon to accompany the senior to services. In still other churches, outreach programs might allow for regular pastoral visits to the residence of the senior.

As prevalent as depression in the elderly is, it is not normal. Every effort should be made to provide the senior patient with opportunities to gain relief from persistent depression.

Sources: University of Massachusetts Boston and Geriatric Mental Health Foundation (GMHF)

Image: Façade St Patrick's Cathedral, New York City, by David Shankbone


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