Is Depression in the Elderly and Senior Housing linked?

An interesting article in the Globe & Mail back in May 2010, discussed a study that was conducted by researchers who found that 44% of seniors living in ‘residential care facilities’ suffer from clinical depression. The article quoted Dr. Tourigny-Rivard, saying; “You can’t assume that living in a nursing home causes depression…Rather, we need to understand that the factors that lead people to live in a residential care setting – physical illness, dementia, loss of a spouse, reduced mobility, etc. – are the same ones that can trigger depression.” I couldn’t agree more. Studies like these tend to shed negative light on these residential care facilities, by focusing on mental conditions of the seniors living in these facilities, rather than the causes of these mental conditions. In doing so, those on the outside, reading the results of the studies tend to develop a skewed perception of these facilities – associating them with conditions such as depression, when they aren’t necessarily the (only) cause.

I was sad to see that many of the responses posted by readers were negative towards these residential care facilities, associating them with the cause of depression among their residents. My fear is that these false associations will eventually lead to larger generalizations about how the community sees and feels about the treatment of seniors as a whole. One of the comments from a reader stated; “the truth is that for the most part no one really cares about seniors…we live in a world of capitalism and consumption. Money is what matters.” I understand the frustration of this man, and the shock he must feel when reading statistics such that the article had pointed out, but to make a blanket statement implying that no one cares about seniors is ludicrous. Another posted; “perhaps families of these housed seniors should be helping them celebrate their lives with frequent visits and outings…” and another post – one of my favorites; “These nursing homes should not be confused with the luxury retirement homes available in Toronto, St.Catherine’s, and probably other cities.”

It is true, and important to know the difference between a nursing home, long term care facility, and a retirement residence. Part of the confusion, which leads to the generalization of the seniors’ industry, is the lack of distinction between these types of accommodation.

I too am concerned for the quality of life of our senior population, and am a true believer in providing them with all the types of care they need in order to maintain this quality of life. I don’t think we should turn a blind eye when topics such as depression among seniors’ housing residents come up, but I do think we should dig a little deeper to find the roots of these issues, rather than only focusing on one factor that may or may not be contributing to the problem.

Part of the problem with statements that use terms like; “housed seniors”, is that it implies that these seniors have been “dumped” into an institution and left for dead. Terms such as these ignore the many situations where the seniors themselves have chosen to move into retirement communities at their own will, for their own reasons. There are situations where families who love their elderly family members dearly, choose to move them in retirement residences. Choosing to see this as “housing a senior” puts much unneeded guilt on these family members who are already under a lot of stress having to make such a decision. We sometimes forget, that it is often the case where the best care for our elderly loved ones is in one of these retirement communities, where the seniors can get the proper care they need,while still remaining as independent as possible, with integrity.

In the best of situations, I would say that having your elderly loved one in a Retirement Community and having family visit frequently is the most ideal situation for your elderly loved one. As much as you love them, and want to do everything for them; sometimes just as it is best to let your child go once it becomes their time to live their own lives, it is just as beneficial to allow your elderly loved one move on to a residence where care and luxury living is available as they need. Wanting to give them everything and do everything for them, and being capable of doing all this are two very different things. Sometimes, the care your elderly loved one needs; you are not able to give. What family members are able to provide, which is extremely important and significant to the seniors’ quality of life, is time. Time is equated with love and care, in these seniors’ eyes. It is so often misconstrued, and thought by many people that it is a ‘retirement home’; which brings sadness and depression to a senior’s life. This is not necessarily the case. The care and services provided by a retirement residence and the love and care of a family member are not mutually exclusive. Each type of “care” fills a different need. A retirement residence provides the socialization, mental stimulation, the physical and practical care a senior needs in order to remain mentally and physically well. The time spent with family, the love and care a visit from a loved one brings to a senior is priceless. Its significance is endless in providing happiness and motivation to live life, for a senior.

We cannot ignore the positive aspects of residential care facilities – the fact that they can provide care that families cannot from their home, the socialization aspect, the mental stimulation provided in their daily activities and programs, the health and wellness services available to the seniors under one roof, meals, and in some cases a concierge, private dining rooms, luxurious amenities, and much more.

In conclusion, it is evident that depression is a common mental health concern among seniors. Research studies that look into the possible root causes, rather than associating external environmental factors – and how they may or may not be contributing factors to depression – would further benefit these seniors when developing a treatment plan. The cause of depression varies among different people. One’s experience in a retirement community also varies depending on one’s personal situation – the reason for moving, state of health when making the transition, degree of involvement in the decision to move, whether or not they recently lost their spouse, and other varying factors within each residence which may alter one’s experience.

We should not make associations between residential care communities and mental health issues, as this can lead to our thinking that the communities are the cause of the depression – when there is no evidence to support this theory. Although patients in hospital are sick, we do not associate becoming sick with a visit to the hospital, and concluding that hospitals are the cause of illness. People go to hospitals to get treated and become healthy again. Seniors move to retirement residences to increase their quality of life.