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Relationships - April 2018

Back to an age-old subject. Depression.


Maggi Stamp is a highly qualified relationship counsellor and trainer who writes each month about emotional and practical concerns and challenges that many of us meet in later life. For 20 years, as well as running a private practise, Maggi worked with the organisation Relate to help married and single people, cohabiting couples, same sex couples, families, young and old people and the bereaved to develop, foster and enjoy healthy and fulfilling relationships. No less important, as she is herself a wife, mother and grandmother, she brings a lifetime of varied and eventful experience to enhance her empathy and understanding.  

Many of her examples are based on concerns that clients, family and friends have presented over the years. In the monthly articles where she responds to issues raised by readers, she strictly respects confidentiality and never identifies those who write to her. But the individual worries they raise are invariably felt by others, so her responses can help many.

You can write to Maggi at maggi@laterlife.com 
for her to respond in the column.



Back to an age-old subject. Depression.

My granddaughter is staying with me. She is taking a break form her studies to recover from a broken relationship and consequent depression. In the meantime, I have been made aware of the reasons why, as we age, we might so easily slide into a depressed state. There are many.

Not everyone becomes depressed in later life but a lot is happening as we age which can draw our mood down and, if we are vulnerable, get the better of us.

As my 18-year-old granddaughter talked of some of the elements of her depression, I remembered how hard it was to deal in my teens with the ending of my own first major relationship. The grief and confusion, the pain and shock, immobilised me. My studies suffered, as did my self-confidence. It took some time to recover any feeling of enthusiasm for college and a social life.

I'm sure she will slowly come to a place where she looks back and breathes a sigh of relief that the relationship ended when it did. She is now free to study, to feel pleased with whatever she achieves, and can for the time being enjoy a social life unfettered by a serious relationship.

At the other end of life we have several friends who are now becoming more frail and unwell. One, an immobile widow of 93 who is a friend of my husband, has spent some years now terrified of becoming so ill that she is taken into a care home. Her daughter, in her late seventies, doesn't live nearby and isn't well herself. The friend is lonely in the extreme, growing increasingly isolated and disabled by her aged body. Mentally, she remains alert...though always worrying that she might have to go to hospital at some point - she swears she will refuse. But last week she was taken into hospital after a fall which broke her hip. We were sure it would be too terrible for her...her worst nightmare come true. But, only one week later, we hear she is loving life in the ward, she has had endless women to chat to, her meals are at regular intervals, - she is made as comfortable as possible and keenly watches the busy life of the ward with what is left of her sight.  Such a surprising outcome we could never have foreseen.

Other friends handle their increasingly disabling situations with admirable fortitude. One has been immobilised for years with parkinson's disease but has remained positive and cheery, even now when he has an unpleasant infection. He is always more concerned about how others are and refers to it only briefly if asked. His wife - we think she is a saint - continues to gently care for him at home. Another friend who has been nursing his wife of many years is finding it very hard to deal with both her recent sudden hospitalisation and the aches and pains of his own illness.

In these circumstances our friends are each handling their problems with stoicism...that inner strength and coping mechanism that somehow reduces the mental effect of physical pain and allows people to function with much of their original wit and interest in life.

I feel these are examples of what is learnt over long lives. The young are hit hard by the difficulties and stresses associated with adult life and a massive learning curve propels them through the 'young adult' years, gathering scars and experience as they go, until they feel they can get along with reasonable confidence. Naturally, this simplification doesn't specify all the possible pitfalls of the teen years. But whoever reads this page will have travelled that path and will recall many of them.

I fear though that being a teenager today is harder than ever. The extra pressures on the young are huge. More young people than ever are expected to go through some sort of university degree course whether they are strong academically or not. The cost is far too high, leaving many of them worrying about their debt before they've even started at college. On top of that, there could be images they created on social websites that might have felt fun at first but can become a burden. It is so easy for the unwitting or the trusting to leave their Facebook pages, Instagram or Snapchat etc. open to strangers or people who hardly know them, and receive critical, bullying or thoroughly unpleasant comments which raise anxiety. They see so many others through social media who seem to have it all and wonder why the apparent looks, the fun, the apparently glamorous lifestyle and so on isn't working for them. Their lack of experience is not sufficiently developed to admit scepticism and enable them to see through the images and balance their perceptions. Boys worry over their lack of a 'six-pack' body, or a sports star image or a huge intellect and judge themselves inadequate, while girls also worry over their appearance and intelligence. Some primp and preen and (scarily) pout into every mirror they see to try to emulate the unreal idols they feel are role models. Both sexes feel pressure from the estimated NINE HOURS per day teens can spend on their phones or laptops accessing social media.  

(A small study of university students in San Francisco has found that the heavy users of smartphones are the most depressed, anxious and lonely. Two professors of health education say that overuse of these phones is as harmful as substance abuse.)

The result is to risk yet more feelings of inadequacy when they need to actually meet face to face. It was bad enough doing it the old fashioned way, but setting up some kind of glamorised version of yourself on the phone is likely to feel even harder to follow up.

Add to that exam anxiety and the draining process of going through the teen years and it isn't surprising that many young people sink under the weight of it all.

But there is hope. My granddaughter has taken the huge step of having no phone. True, she has a laptop computer for her studies and communicates with her friends through that, but when she goes out, she is focussed on the genuine social experience. Her recent experiences have helped her learn not only about the highs and lows of serious relationships, but about how to identify and treat other areas of stress. Perhaps she will set a new trend...

While teenagers are learning to handle pressure, occasional unhappiness or depression and develop their defences and coping mechanisms, older people are facing the inescapable blows of having lived to a decent age. The illnesses, indignities and stresses ambush us. When they do, we can use what we have learnt over the years to fortify our responses. The longer we live the more likely we are to experience these challenges, but as long as we have learned well, we can 'channel our inner stoic' to get on with it. By the time we get to the older age group we know the risks. And I hope we have also learnt enough to store the strength and pleasure of all the good things in life that sustain us.

We all aim to be swans gliding along the surface while paddling frantically beneath. It is what our struggling elderly friends are doing and I admire them for it and hope I can do the same when I need to. I have definitely learnt things from having my granddaughter here. She carries herself with a poise and dignity of the swan, rare in the young. Perhaps it is part of her defence but it is a fine thing to see and bodes well for her future. But I'm not going to tell her about ageing!



You can write to Maggi at maggi@laterlife.com for her to respond in the column.


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