Although the festive season may bring happiness and good cheer for many of us, there are some for which holidays such as this may be a particularly difficult time. “Holiday blues” affect about 20% of South Africans and this percentage may be slightly higher among the growing elderly population for which symptoms of depression often go unrecognised. Unfortunately this is often due to the surprisingly common and largely held belief that feelings of sadness and confusion are simply the norm for getting older.

Only recently have we seriously considered the problem of depression in the elderly. Some studies estimate that 18% to 20% of nursing home residents may experience major depressive episodes, which are likely to be chronic if they appear first after the age of 60. Added to this, it is often difficult to diagnose depression in the elderly because the presentation of mood disorders is often complicated by the presence of medical illnesses or other social stressors such as retirement, financial problems, and the increasing certainty of their own mortality. Unfortunately, as a person becomes older, the chances that they may suffer a bereavement, either of a partner or a close friend also increase and this in itself may contribute to the symptoms of clinical depression without any suitable social supports.

It is for these reasons that “holiday blues” may be a particularly concerning problem for the elderly. For those seniors who are ill over the Christmas period, this may be a lonely time especially if the illness prevents them from being able to get out and about. As we become frailer and more alone, the psychological result is naturally depression, which, of course, increases the probability that we will become even frailer and have even less social support. For those seniors who have lost friends or relatives, this may also be a difficult time of year and it is these feelings of loneliness that are most important to combat.

But trying to deal with your pain on your own can only serve to perpetuate your feelings of aloneness. There is help available, and the Depression and Anxiety Support Group will be open throughout this festive season; Monday to Friday between 8am and 7pm, and on Saturdays between 8am and 5pm. The Support Group will also be open on Christmas Day and Family Day between 9am and 1 pm. The Group can be contacted on (011) 783 1474 / 6 or (011) 884 1797.

Dr. Anne Biccard, a GP and Psychologist says that despite the fact that the tendency is to isolate oneself, one should try hard to get the familiarity and comfort of people around you. This is why the Depression and Anxiety Support Group has a team of highly trained counsellors to assist those in need over the festive season as well as a service where, if need be, callers may simply hear a friendly voice, chat, or exchange holiday greetings over the phone.

Dr. Biccard also says that it is important that you confront your negative feelings and identify your problems. The best way to pinpoint the basis of these feelings is to share them with someone you trust. This allows you to get another opinion, organise your thoughts and understand your situation.

Sticking to a balanced diet over the festive season may also help to prevent the tiredness and feelings of being run down that are associated with the symptoms of depression, and relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and breathing techniques, do help.

For those who may have loved ones suffering from depression this holiday, it is important to realise that depression is a very real clinical illness that cannot be willed or wished away. Supportive relationships are important and one will need to learn much about the illness, and even more about your loved one who is suffering from it. Involve the person in your life, and the activities and festivities of the season, and avoid pressuring them to cheer up. Be prepared, be sensitive, and – Listen.

It is however important to realise that there is a difference between the relatively transient blue mood associated with the “holiday blues”, and clinical depression. If the symptoms are chronic and do not improve once the festivities of Christmas have come and gone, it is important to seek help. The fact of the matter is that it is not “normal” to feel depressed when one gets older. In fact, most people feel satisfied with their lives. Depression is an illness, and it will not go away by itself. It is treatable and curable, and there is help available.