Working with older adults: activities to overcome sadness and depression


Robin Dynes, author of ‘Positive Communication: Activities to reduce isolation and improve the wellbeing of older adultsshares an activity you can use to get group members discussing coping strategies for when they feel down.


Everyone has periods when they feel sad and depressed. Mostly after a brief time of feeling down, these feelings can be shrugged off fairly easily. At other times individuals can become overwhelmed with a sense of sadness and hopelessness that inhibits the ability to get on and enjoy life.  Thoughts may become focused on negatives; the person may have started to become self-critical and pessimistic about the future. As people get older there is often much to start feeling pessimistic about: aches and pains, bad health, loss of friends, children and grandchildren becoming independent, etc. They might become less able to do things they have always enjoyed. It then becomes difficult to remain motivated and take action to fight this decline into depression. 

To avoid this negative spiral taking over and to maintain a sense of control and optimism for the future, it is helpful for individuals to identify different coping strategies which can be brought into play at an early stage.

One way to get group members discussing tactics is to write a number of strategies on cards – one to each card.  Pass the cards round the group asking each person to take one. Now invite one person to read out what is written on their card. This is then discussed and group members give examples of when they have used or could use this strategy.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Remind yourself that your moods change and that you rarely stay down for long
  • Take a walk with – or to see – a friend. If this is not possible, chat to someone while out
  • Plan at least five enjoyable activities to do during the coming week
  • Challenge negative thoughts which are exaggerated by writing them down and substituting more realistic and balanced thoughts to replace them
  • Be compassionate with yourself when things don’t work out as you hoped
  • Talk to a friend and tell him/her how you feel
  • Do something different from your normal habits. Instead of watching TV , invite a friend for coffee, go swimming or join a reading group
  • Keep a diary of your daily activities to find out how you are spending your time. How much time are you allocating to things which you feel are a duty or necessary and how much on things you enjoy? Can you arrange a better balance?
  • Pamper yourself. Take a bath or shower, have a manicure, go to the hairdresser or do some shopping.
  • Learn something new or take up a new hobby
  • Do something to help someone else
  • Think back to a time in the past when you have felt down or depressed and what you did to change your mood then. Do it now
  • Contact someone who supports you
  • Give yourself credit for what you do and achieve each day
  • Keep a diary of the good things that happen, those you enjoyed or which went well – no matter how small. Record at least three things each day: enjoyed lunch, had a good chat with my neighbour, sat in the garden and loved hearing the birds sing, and so on
  • Set yourself a challenge – something you have always wanted to do for ages and have not got round to doing. It may be something simple such as writing to an old friend, baking a cake, changing the furniture around or sorting out some old photograph albums
  • Affirm your attributes and good points. ‘I am a good friend.’ ‘I help others.’ ‘I am fun to be with.’ ‘I love and support my daughter.’

The activity can be ended by asking each person in turn to state something they could use and in what circumstances they will use it.

An alternative way of doing this type of activity would be to ask participants to think back to times in the past when the have felt sad or depressed and what they did to help them through that time. After a moment or two for thought, invite volunteers, in turn, to share their experience and how they coped during the period. The methods shared can then be written up on a white board or flip chart. Group members can then think about and discuss which strategies would be useful to them and how they would benefit from using them.  Again, end the activity with each person stating something they could use and in which circumstances they could use it.

You can also make notes of the strategies favoured by individuals and, when the person appears to be feeling low in mood, remind and encourage them to take action.


Robin Dynes is a counsellor and freelance writer who has worked as a Social Inclusion Officer for Skills and Learning. Robin developed an outreach curriculum to meet the needs of people with disabilities, older people and other vulnerable people.

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