Please…if you’re a young or middle-aged adult, don’t think this post is irrelevant to you. In what seems like the blink of an eye, Lord willing, you’ll eventually be classified an “older adult.” And you probably know an older loved one who is vulnerable to depression because of factors associated with aging.
Why is depression a greater threat to older adults?
I’m not saying it’s a normal aspect of aging, or inevitable for seniors. Yet in any given year, about 7 million adults 65+ in the United States suffer from it.
Vulnerability increases even for older adults who have no history of depression. Catalysts for its onset include loss of a spouse; erosion of purpose and stabilizing routine when one’s career ends; social isolation; uncertainty, or physical limitations, stemming from a serious medical condition; financial pressures; and loss of independence (such as being forced to move out of one’s family home).
For those of us who’ve battled this nemesis for decades, factors associated with aging may exacerbate the symptoms and inflate hopelessness.
Based on my experience and the pilgrimages of others I’ve observed, here are three reasons despondency often intensifies with age. After explaining each reason, I’ll share ways I “preach to myself” and try to minimize the effects of depression spawned by getting older.
Factors Fueling Despondency
- Less time remaining to achieve emotional health and see desired changes in my life.
Recently I read an excerpt from my journal from the late 1980s. I described relational difficulties worsened by my hyper-sensitivity; a lack of motivation for many responsibilities that I knew, cognitively, were pregnant with meaning; plus self-condemnation and hopelessness when it came to overcoming anxiety and impatience–typical descriptors during a depressive episode.
Then it hit me: 30 years later, I go through days when I could write the identical journal entry! Imagine the frustration to see the lack of growth in the emotional realm, and the negative self-talk that still roils around in my mind: “Look at you…you’re a Bible teacher, a vocational Christian leader, and you haven’t grown a lick!”
More aware of my mortality at 68, I figure that if I haven’t reached emotional wellness by now, I never will. The emotionally-whole person I’ve always wanted to be is a pipe dream.
It’s true that I haven’t grown much in my emotional control or mental health. But it’s a lie to say I haven’t grown a lick! I’m less impulsive when making important decisions. I’m wiser and more frugal when it comes to handling money, and yet I give more of it away to people in need or in missions. I’m more disciplined in getting work done when I’m despondent, realizing that by God’s grace, I can teach and write with excellence even when I’m smack-dab in the middle of a depressive episode. And I’m more prone to encourage others who are hurting or challenged, whether it takes the form of my physical presence, a phone call, a hand-written letter, or a poem.
I may not yet be the person I want to be, but by God’s grace, I’m not who I once was, either! Besides, even at my age, God isn’t finished with me yet. He can smooth out more rough edges of my character. “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
2. Diminishing expectation that burdens I carry will be lifted, or prayers I’ve voiced repeatedly will be answered.
All the following scenarios are real, but not every one is necessarily my direct experience. The third scenario is definitely mine. A couple decades ago, these issues wouldn’t cause you to spiral as far downward because you would have seen more time ahead for resolution to occur. I’ll still offer a rebuttal as if every scenario were mine.
It’s easier to lose heart when…
*You’ve prayed over 20 years for a loved one to return to Christ, without seeing any movement in that direction. You know you don’t have many years left to see the burdens alleviated or the prayers answered.
*You’re worried about the future stability and financial viability of a son or daughter who’s wrestled with addiction, or whose disability limits earnings. You aren’t going to be around forever to assist him or her.
*Vulnerabilities to certain temptations haven’t diminished with age, as you expected. Though the vulnerability itself isn’t sin, you grow weary of the daily battles for purity, and figure you should be at a maturity level where Satan’s lures aren’t as attractive.
It’s never too late for the Lord to answer a prayer or lift a burden off my shoulders. I may not know why He hasn’t yet done it, but all I can do is what Jesus commanded: to keep on praying. After a story to illustrate the necessity of persistence in prayer, Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened for you” (Luke 11:9). The verb tenses carry the idea of “keep on” asking, seeking, knocking.
When is the last time that worry over an adult child resolved anything? I will meet with a financial advisor, explain the circumstances to him, and see if, despite my limited income, my future financial plan can include a means of helping the loved one when my wife and I are gone. (Oh, and I can intercede daily for God, the ultimate Parent, to intervene as needed in the loved one’s future!) Outcomes that I cannot control, God can. “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27)
Let’s be realistic. I will never reach a spiritual plateau high enough to make me invulnerable to the lures of Satan. He’s like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8). The intensified battles with temptation are an ironic reason for encouragement. My ministry in old age is expanding, and perhaps he perceives me as more of a threat. That in itself shows the significance of the work I do. All Christians need a wartime mentality every day. Yet I don’t have to give in to the enemy. “But the Lord is faithful, and He will protect and strengthen you from the evil one” (2 Thess. 3:3).
To think that spiritual warfare should abate as I age is both unrealistic and unbiblical.
3. Physical decline and fatigue diminish quality of life and escalate pessimism.
Despite visits to seven physicians and three physical therapists, for seven years spinal degeneration caused daily pain. I’d often teach sitting down, and I stopped all yard work.
For decades, despite visits to sleep specialists, a sleep apnea test (which I passed because I studied too much for it!), and experiments with several prescription sleep meds, I averaged a little over five hours of fitful sleep each night. When continued experimentation with sleep meds led to a combination that ramped up my sleep to over six hours a night, another dilemma fostered daytime fatigue: extremely low testosterone.
As soon as injections elevated my testosterone to normal levels, boosting my energy, breathing difficulties led to a hospital stay and a diagnosis of multiple large blood clots in both lungs (in 2014). After my recovery my cardiologists said, “You’re lucky. Your particular condition is fatal half the time.”
No doctor will prescribe the medicine needed to boost my “T’ level, again at an off-the-charts low level, since they believe the medicine itself increases clotting, even in folks like me who are on blood thinners for life. Now I take one or two Ritalin pills daily so I’ll have enough physical and mental energy to teach, write, and play with my six-year-old grandson when we visit. Without it, I’m too exhausted to accomplish much after mid-day. Each day, I plop down and stretch out on my office couch and rest 15 minutes after lunch.
I’m not saying this to evoke your sympathy, but to illustrate that men or women already prone to depression experience inevitable physical decline that wrecks even more havoc emotionally and mentally. Wielding spiritual weapons against depression, as well as the weapons of common grace, takes energy of mind, body, and spirit that physical issues siphon off.
Less energy and more physical setbacks require me to cut back on discretionary commitments. I can’t buck the fact that my output is lower than 10-20 years ago, so I must say “No” more often to things that sap my strength. Every need I am asked to meet is not necessarily a mandate from God. Last time I checked, God will exist after I die. Cemeteries are filled with indispensable people.
I’ll keep taking measures to strengthen my body so I can serve with passion, even if it’s in a more limited capacity. I swim several times a week. I exercise with kettlebells and take long walks. I’ve lost weight (30 pounds the past two years, more to come (or is it “more to go?”) I take strong multivitamins. Without efforts of this sort, I’d have far less capacity for work than I have now.
And I often remind myself that the pain and fatigue and spiritual warfare is temporary. Resiliency for current adversity escalates when I remember that eventually, I’ll be with Christ and I’ll experience the truth of Revelation 21:4: “He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain.”
Focusing on forever keeps me from losing heart and keeps me from surrendering to the dark moods that oppress me.
Pray to finish well, and for the gumption needed to keep fighting despondency with faith in a loving, powerful God.
If you click on the following link, you can go to the McQuilkin Library as part of the resources provided by Columbia International University You’ll find his poem, “Let Me Get Home Before Dark,” which would be a fitting conclusion to this post.