Depression among the elderly

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Depression among the elderly


A few days ago, an old lady in my neighborhood passed away. She was 85 years old and had been caring for her sick husband for years. One day, she hanged herself on a plum tree in her backyard. Villagers mourned her death as they had noticed that she seemed depressed, talked little and did not come to the meetings at the village center. They had just assumed she was not feeling well. She must have decided to end her hard life on her own after never expressing how miserable and tough her life of caring for her husband had been. What was going on in her mind when she tied a rope on her beloved plum tree? Was she worried about her children in Seoul? Was she resentful of her fate? It is Korean tradition to cut down and burn the tree where someone has been hanged. She may have wanted to be with her plum tree as she left this world.

A few years ago, a lady in her 70s knocked out her husband with a frying pan. The husband had engaged in extramarital affairs all his life, but when he turned 70, he came back to his wife. The wife never blamed him and cooked three nice meals a day upon his return. But on the day of the incident, the husband asked the wife to bring some fruit for dessert as she was cleaning the dinner table. That moment, she could not help but smack her husband with the frying pan she was washing. Fortunately, the man regained consciousness and returned home after a few stitches. But it is understandable that the old lady who had never showed her feelings toward her unfaithful husband finally vented her frustration.

Getting angry is natural. Just as we take cold medicine to prevent a common cold from developing into serious pneumonia, we need to treat anger and frustration to prevent depression. Korea has the highest suicide rate among OECD member countries and the second-highest in the world. The biggest cause of suicide is depression, which is especially prevalent among the elderly. According to a report by the National Health Insurance Corporation, the number of elderly patients suffering from depression increased by 65.9 percent in five years, from 89,000 in 2004 to 148,000 in 2009. The lifespan is increasing, and traditional values are changing drastically. Compared to the young people suffering from depression, elderly patients are reluctant to admit to the mental condition and complain about physical problems instead. So it is hard for the people around them to detect they are actually suffering from depression. When older people say they are feeling unwell for no reason, we need to be concerned. I am afraid that the aging society could be in for a catastrophe if we are not prepared.

* The author is a guest columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Eom Eul-soon

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