Thursday, November 10, 2011

Depression in Older Adults and the Role of Occupational Therapy Treatment

Patty McKinney, OTR
The job of the occupational therapist (OTR) is to help people of all ages and stages of life participate in the things they want and need to do. Through the therapeutic use of everyday activities, known as "occupations" in this context, the work of an occupational therapist helps lead to measurable gains in quality of life for the patients they treat. Because of their work helping people achieve and maintain quality of life, treating depression is an emerging niche in occupational therapy practice. Often, an OTR works with a senior population, and OTRs can be especially effective in both identifying, and mitigating, depression in seniors through the work that they do.

Recent data suggests that about 20 million Americans suffer from depression, but not all seek treatment. Treatment can include medications, counseling, and increasingly, occupational therapy. Occupational therapy can assist people in restructuring their daily lives. People with depression, and especially aging adults, can benefit from the support and problem solving that occupational therapy brings to their care. Often, occupational therapy helps people access and be successful with  those day-to-day things that they value, and the net result is a happier and more fulfilled individual. In addition, OTRs are trained in identifying the differences between depression in older adults and the early signs of dementia, which can look very similar.

Depression isn’t always easy to spot. It may be expressed through behavioral changes, emotional changes, physical changes, or a combination of these things. Older adults who are depressed are often experiencing a culmination of losses—not just loved ones, but sometimes their health. Many housebound seniors suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is characterized by the onset of depression during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. The depression generally lifts during spring and summer. SAD may be effectively treated with light therapy, but not all individuals with SAD get better with light therapy alone.

People with depressive illnesses do not all experience the same symptoms. The severity, frequency, and duration of symptoms vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness.
Some signs and symptoms of depression include: 

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping 
  •  Overeating or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts 
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.  
If you or an aging loved one may be suffering from depression, please seek treatment. Your primary care physician, counselor, and possibly an occupational therapist, are there to help.

Patty McKinney, Occupational Therapist, is the owner and operator of Glenwood Springs Harmony House, an assisted living facility with peaceful accommodations and professional, qualified personal caregivers.

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