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Empty Nesters and Depression: What to Do When Your Grief Won’t End

By Stephanie Dodaro

Every year, millions of young adults leave home for the first time: to get jobs, attend college, join the military, or get married. For parents or guardians left in the proverbial nest, this can be a joyful time, but also an emotional and potentially difficult one. It is common to experience a period of mourning and readjustment known as Empty Nest Syndrome (ENS). However, empty nesters experiencing prolonged grief should understand the lonely woman misses her children differences between ENS and depression, when to seek medical assistance for depression, and the range of depression treatment options from support groups to Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) therapy.

After 18 plus years of caring for their children, empty nesters may feel a mix of emotions: happiness, pride, or relief, as well as sadness and emptiness at a lack of companionship. While their children are experiencing new places, forging new friendships and exploring their identities, empty nesters remain in the same spaces, which can serve as a continual reminder of their children’s absence. Parents and guardians also follow the same routines, minus their childrearing duties; with less to distract them, they may feel the absence of their kids even more acutely. Caretakers can experience a loss of identity and direction, especially those who stayed at home to raise their children. Those who worked many hours while childrearing may regret not having spent more time with their kids.

Studies show that up to 25% of empty nesters develop ENS. There are many steps they can take to deal with sadness over their children’s departure, including figuring out ways to keep in touch with their kids, exploring new hobbies, and reaching out to friends and fellow empty nesters. However, this major life change may also trigger depressive episodes in parents, especially those who are predisposed to it. For those who already experience major depression, their symptoms may worsen.

While there is some overlap between the symptoms of ENS and depression, the latter are more debilitating, center around feelings of personal inadequacy, and typically cannot be eased by common therapeutic activities, such as talking with friends, finding a new hobby, or volunteering.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Little interest or pleasure in doing things
  • Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless
  • Trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much
  • Feeling tired or having little energy
  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Feeling bad about yourself, that you’re a failure or have let yourself or your family down
  • Trouble concentrating on activities, such as reading the newspaper or watching television
  • Moving or speaking so slowly that other people notice. Or, the opposite, being so fidgety or restless that you move around a lot more than usual.
  • Thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself in some way

Although ENS can contribute to or deepen depression in both sexes, women may be particularly susceptible. ENS can coincide with the onset of menopause, which may result in mood swings, sleep deprivation, hot flashes, and other agitating symptoms.* Around the same time, aging relatives may start to need caregiving and women often shoulder the majority of this work.

If you are an Empty Nester experiencing symptoms of depression for longer than two weeks, consider seeking treatment from your doctor. For those whose depressive symptoms are part of a long-term pattern, the feelings of loss associated with an “empty nest” may compel them to finally seek relief. Although feelings of debilitating sadness, despair, or anxiousness may seem intractable, it is very possible to regain a sense of joy or, for some with lifelong depression, to really feel it for the first time.

Your doctor may suggest attending a support group or seeing a psychologist for counseling sessions. If you are experiencing more severe or longstanding symptoms, you may also be referred to a psychiatrist, who will be able to prescribe medications such as short- or long-term antidepressants. In a very small number of especially treatment-resistant cases, psychiatrists may recommend Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT).

As an alternative to medication and more drastic treatments, patients now have the option of TMS therapy, a non-invasive outpatient treatment that uses magnetic energy to stimulate brain receptors. Approved by the FDA in 2008 to treat depression, a course of TMS typically includes three to five sessions lasting 30-60 minutes. Most patients report no discomfort during the procedures and very few side effects between visits. Clinical studies have shown that TMS is effective in about 60% of patients, or twice as effective as antidepressants, and has proven particularly effective in patients for whom medications do not work. TMS patients also typically experience far fewer side effects than those on medications alone or ECT.

Empty nesters worked hard for many years to raise their children. If you are an empty nester experiencing ENS or depression, it’s important to take care of yourself and seek treatment so you can support your children in their new endeavors and enjoy your next phase of life.