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Are there any Non-Traditional Treatments for Depression?

by Dr. Patrick Arbore, Elder Abuse & Depression Expert
December 29, 2011

Question: Are there any alternatives to the traditional treatments for depression that can be tried to help my elderly aunt?


Without knowing the degree of intensity of your aunt’s depression, I am guessing that she may have been experiencing depression for quite some time.  Although I believe that exercise and diet can be enormously helpful in decreasing depression, these tools may not be as helpful if depression has been part of her experience for a long time. Likewise, talking therapies and/or pharmacological approaches may not be something your aunt is willing to try.  Or, your aunt may have tried medications or talking therapies that were unsuccessful. 

While the two alternative procedures that I will discuss may not meet your definition of non-traditional, I know older people who have been helped when more traditional treatments were not helpful.

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is a procedure that is a possible option for people who might be medication resistant or who do not benefit from traditional approaches to depression. In this procedure, electrical currents are passed through the brain. A brief seizure is deliberately triggered. When this occurs, changes in brain chemistry may result in a reverse of psychological symptoms. There has been a stigma attached to ECT since its inception (think:  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). The side effects of this procedure have changed significantly through the years.  ECT may not be for everyone, however. A frank and thorough discussion with her physician is strongly encouraged.

A second alternative therapy is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR.  Introduced by Shapiro in 1989, this treatment was directed toward people who suffered from distressing memories. If your aunt is troubled by unpleasant and recurring thoughts or traumatic experiences, EMDR may be an option for her. What EMDR does is facilitate information processing through eye movements. As a result of this technique, it is hoped that patient’s distress, distorted perceptions and dysfunctional reactions may diminish or disappear.

I would urge your aunt to have a physical examination to rule out any organic problems. Some illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease and others can trigger depression in people. If your aunt is taking a number of medications, I would suggest a medication review to determine whether these medications in themselves or in interaction with other meds might have a depression side effect.

I would also suggest, if possible, that your aunt seek as much time in nature as she can. Nature is very healing. I would also inquire about her spirituality or religious beliefs. A final comment I have is that depression and loneliness can be related. Does your aunt have people in her life with whom she can have meaningful conversations? Loneliness and isolation can be very painful.  

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Dr. Patrick Arbore is the Founder and Director of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services (CESP), a program offered by the Institute on Aging in San Francisco. Dr. Arbore conducts workshops and lectures locally and nationally on aging-related subjects. He is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on suicide prevention, bereavement, suffering, etc., including a chapter he co-authored in the book, “When Professionals Weep".

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