You know that visiting a friend or relative cheers him or her up, but new research shows that it’s far more than a temporary mood lift. When you spend time—even if it’s just once a month—it can help prevent that person from becoming depressed. The new research applies to anyone 50 or older, but there are particular insights for those age 70 on up.
While it’s no surprise that a real visit packs more emotional punch than a phone call or an e-mail, the new study did uncover unexpected insights. Some ways of contacting people are surprisingly unhelpful…for a certain age group, visits from friends help more than visits from kin…and one particular kind of visit is worse than staying away entirely!
So if you love someone who may be lonely or isolated, read on to learn the best ways to help him or her stay emotionally healthy. The good news: It doesn’t always require a long car ride or trip to the airport.
THE LONELY PATH TO DEPRESSION…AND A WAY OUT
Isolation and loneliness are major contributors to depression. It’s true for everyone, but it’s especially relevant for older people, who may be dealing with physical limitations, ill health and new living situations and experiencing feelings of loss, anger, frustration—even despair.
Close social support from family and friends has been shown to reduce the risk for depression. But what hasn’t been studied much, until now, is how different forms of communication affect depression risk. To find out, researchers at VA Portland Health Care System in Oregon assessed 11,000 US adults aged 50 and older. They were a representative sample, so some had very active social lives—with friends, children and other family members—while others were more isolated. At the beginning of the study, some were depressed but most weren’t. Then the researchers looked at depressive symptoms two years later. Key findings…
Real visits matter. Individuals who weren’t initially depressed who had face-to-face contact with anyone at least once or twice a week had only a 7.3% chance of becoming depressed over the next two years. Those who got together with a friend or relative only once or twice a month fared a little worse—8.1% became depressed. But those who saw friends or family only every few months or even less had an 11.5% chance of becoming depressed within two years.
When you’re younger, friends help the most. Between the ages of 50 and 69, frequent in-person contact with friends was the most powerful depression protection. After age 70, in-person contact with the kids was most protective.
E-mails, letters and phone calls don’t help much. While there was some indication that frequent e-mails from friends might be somewhat helpful in reducing depressive symptoms, the results were mixed, so no firm conclusions could be reached. Nor did frequent phone calls help prevent depression.
Is your loved one already depressed? Pick up the phone! For subjects who were already depressed at the beginning of the study, frequent phone calls with a friend or relative (two or three times a week) was associated with reduced depressive symptoms. This dovetails with other research that shows that phone-based therapy can be effective, especially for older people with depression.
Bad visits are worse than no visits at all. Driving over, e-mailing or calling just to pick a fight isn’t doing anyone a favor. Whether a phone call, letter, e-letter or in-person visit, if the contact involved conflict or was lacking in social support, it increased depressive symptoms, the study found. (The study describes “social support” as feeling understood…having someone to rely on in case of a problem…or having someone to “open up” with to talk about worries.)
THE BEST WAY TO VISIT YOUR LOVED ONE
To make sure your visits are positive experiences, we asked AlanTeo, MD, MS, assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University and lead author of the study, for his suggestions…
- Visit regularly and frequently. It doesn’t matter whether the visits are scheduled in advance or spontaneous. It’s the regularity and frequency that are most important.
- Provide social support. When you visit, be there emotionally as well as physically. Turn off your cell phone, and provide your full attention. Really listen, especially if your friend or loved one is having a hard time. Even if you’re not solving any problems, says Dr. Teo, lending an ear shows that you care.
- Keep it cool. “People don’t always agree, and people do get angry,” notes Dr. Teo. That’s to be expected. But try not to get too upset when you and your friend or family member disagree. “When that happens, let the other person know this is how you feel and ask to talk it out,” he says. When it comes to your loved one’s mental health, the quality of the visit really matters.
- Embrace electronic technology. Though Dr. Teo stresses the importance of face-to-face contact, he does believe that newer video-streaming technologies—which weren’t covered in this study—might help under certain circumstances. “If your older loved one lives too far away to make frequent visits feasible, online video communication, via Skype or Facetime, can be a nice way to bridge the gap between the times when you can visit personally.”