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Apathy can signal something more serious


Apathy can signal something more serious

Apathy is more than just a passing flat mood. KENDALL MORTON explains the signs of apathy and suggests some practical remedies.

It’s common to feel apathetic on occasion, but when apathy sticks around it can be damaging to your mental and physical health.

It can occur alone, or it may be a symptom of an underlying condition such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.

When someone is experiencing apathy, they will be unmoved by good or bad news, and lack the energy and motivation to do everyday things.

Apathy is different from depression. While depression is expressed as sadness, despair and other strong emotions, apathy is being unresponsive to life’s up and downs.

In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 937 older adults were assessed for apathy, and it was found that those who scored highly had double the risk of developing a slow gait and frailty compared to their peers.

They were three times more likely to lose functional life skills. The authors concluded that apathy can be a useful marker and warning for family members and health staff.

Here are some signs of apathy to look out for:

  • No longer showing an interest in the usual enjoyable activities and hobbies.
  • Refusing social invitations that would have been accepted in the past.
  • Not taking initiative to plan the day but relying on others.
  • Failing to care about problems, such as health conditions or household maintenance.

If you or someone you know is struggling with apathy, here are some strategies to try:

Encourage the person to do things they used to enjoy. When older adults give up their drivers’ licence, their social world can shrink. Assist them to reconnect with people they know. This can be by phone or by inviting them for morning tea.

Do not take roles away that they can do with some assistance. This may reinforce apathy and helplessness. Instead share the tasks with them.

Check they have a good sleep routine and eat regular meals. Have other family members or helpers share a weekly meal with them. Arrange for them to visit a neighbour once a week.

Make a note of what can trigger the apathy. It may be television news of doom and gloom. If so, encourage them to take a one-week holiday from the television news.

At any age we can suffer from compassion fatigue. This happens when bad news such as floods, fires and mass shootings, is so constant that you disengage. This has been defined as apathy, but it is a mental survival strategy.

Vary the day. Our brains like new things. A drive to a park with a flask of tea may spark some interest; take a mystery tour to a garden centre that serves lunch; or spend time outdoors in the sunshine.

Not every suggestion will be effective for every person.

If you have concerns that you or someone you know is not overcoming a state of apathy, seek medical help. It may be part of an underlying medical condition.

 Kendall Morton is Director of Home Care Assistance Sunshine Coast to Wide Bay. Call 5491 6888 or email

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