Seniors with disabilities fighting depression

Much of my work as a mental health professional involves seeing clients on site in assisted living facilities. While driving to a facility not long ago, I was listening to a radio program in which the host mentioned that 85 percent of people in nursing homes didn’t have any regular visitors. It was probably the same for assisted living, I figured. Then I began wondering which of my clients—all with disabilities—would have family members or friends visiting during the 2015 holiday season.

To learn more, I spoke with an assisted living facility administrator, Tonya, who said in a telephone interview, “I would say, at most, 50 percent of our residents receive regular visitors, and that may be a high estimate. In terms of ‘regular’ visitors, I’m counting more than just family members and am including neighbors and even social workers that might stop by only a couple times a year. We have few residents that have family visiting routinely.”

She attributed part of the problem to some residents who were estranged from family due to addiction or mental health issues; but the bulk was due to residents who had outlived other family members, not had children, or had children or relatives that lived out of state.

She said, “The holidays tend to be extremely hard for many residents. Sometimes their lack of visitors contributes to behaviors we don’t normally see. They may act out when feeling isolated. It often gives people hope when they have someone to talk to. Our staff is trying to (physically) take care of residents and the time we have to talk with them is less than what we’d like. We wish we had more time to visit. If all our residents had regular visitors, it would have such a huge impact on their lives.”

With more contact with visitors from outside, Tonya said her residents most certainly would feel less depressed and isolated, exhibit far fewer attention-seeking behaviors, and have fewer incidents of being angry at each other.

Many assisted living and nursing home residents have family members, friends or former neighbors living nearby who seldom or never visit. If that’s you, I challenge you to make plans to visit and keep on visiting regularly throughout the year. I also challenge all readers to visit local facilities and try making new friends. Try to focus on their struggles rather than your own awkward feelings.

By Daniel Vance

Daniel Vance is a contributing columnist whose column “disabilities” has been featured in over 265 newspapers since its inception in 2002.