We all have experienced that emotional response to bad news – we call it sadness, but when it lingers, when it takes up space and time and refuses to leave, we may call it depression or despair.
Despair is an unwelcome guest that visits us all – rich, poor, young, old, black, white, famous, unknown, powerful and powerless.
When we read about the rich and famous, some of us may even snicker at some of the things they do to invite this houseguest, then seems surprise by his presence, or by his lengthy stay! Bill Clinton and Michael Jackson comes to mind.
Then there is the friend, or relative who stands on their doorsteps and beckons this houseguest to come in. You know them, they love stuff and spends their paycheck + credit card acquiring more stuff – begging despair to linger for years as they avoid the phone calls and mail from one of despair’s favorite elf – the debt collector!
Or that despair chaser that blindly seeks after fun, knowing the cost is more than they could pay, but fun (and ridding themselves of boredom) outweighs their judgment and despair is the inevitable result – sometimes in the form of an addiction, or imprisonment, or job loss, or disease.
And then there is the sick, the loss, and the pain that results in enduring the presence of this unwelcome guest. While these precursors to despair comes to us all – sick, loss and pain is no respecter of persons– they tend to lodge at the door of the senior person more often than not.
Perhaps because, after years of fighting that unwelcome guest, the senior person has lost arsenal and energy? He or she is weakened and despair seeks to rest rather than visit? Whatever the reason, despair is more of an epidemic – rapidly spreading like an infectious disease – than a random virus, for the senior person.
It knocks, kicks down the door and storms in at the most inopportune times – recent negative medical diagnosis + loss of a spouse. Outliving an adult child, or a lifelong friend, and deciding about moving to a long term care facility because of this loss.
Despair arrives and declares itself the winner, in a life that was spent battling its presence and lingering effects, and how does the weary war torn soldier respond? More often with these four words, “I want to die.”
As health care professionals we hear these four words often, and our trite response is often, a gentle chide, a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, an unrequited hug.
We may even ask family members to talk with a Psychologist, get the senior person on anti-depressants, or if there is no cognitive impairment, suggest talk-therapy with a professional. But what if the senior only wants you, yes you daughter, son, grandchild? What if just your presence – consistent, not sporadic – presence – listening – laughing – sharing – reminiscing, is all that senior person wants?