Older adults who struggle with depression have a number of challenges facing them. As we get older we often become more socially isolated which both increases our risk for depression and also weakens our support system and access to the help we need to identify and treat depression. Many older adults believe that depression is a normal part of aging. Sometimes depression in seniors can be hard to identify because many depressed seniors do not “feel sad”. Their chief complaints may instead include lack of motivation and energy, decreased appetite, even increased pain such as in the joints or headaches. In fact, depression can and often does present itself in a more physical manner in older adults rather than emotional.
Unfortunately, many depressed older adults do not recognize that they are depressed, or don’t take the steps to get the help they need. The following are some warning signs of depression in the elderly:
- Extreme sadness or anxiety
- Unexplained physical aches and pains
- Loss of interest in activities one previously enjoyed
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Loss of self-worth or feelings hopeless/helpless
- Lack of motivation and energy
- Sleep disturbances
- Increased use of alcohol or abuse of medications or other drugs
- Thoughts of suicide or expressing a desire to die
Depression usually first occurs in early adulthood, but older adults who have never been depressed before can experience the first symptoms of depression later in life. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 7 million American adults over the age of 65 experience depression each year. In fact, in the United States the suicide rate is one of the highest amongst males age 65 and up.
Depression as a Part of Aging
A stigma exists around depression and other mental health issues especially in the older generation. Seniors were raised in a time that mental health was highly misunderstood, and they may feel that admitting they are depressed is a sign of weakness, or be too ashamed to ask for help. that they have no “reason” to be depressed. The truth is it can happen to anyone, at any time, no matter the individual’s background, status, or accomplishments he or she has achieved.
As we age, we often experience significant life changes, such as retirement, the death of loved ones, declining health, loss of independence, all of which can sometimes trigger depression. One may feel a reduced sense of purpose or loneliness and isolation. One thing to keep in mind is that all kinds of loss can cause grief and grieving is a normal and healthy process. Grief and depression are different however- with grief, emotions fluctuate and the individual will have good days and bad, while depression is a more constant feeling of despair. Grief also heals with time, while depression doesn’t just go away on it’s own.
A Medical Component
Some medical problems can cause depression in older adults. Often times as a side effect of the medications used to treat the conditions. Conditions that put seniors at a higher risk of depression include:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Heart disease
- High Cholesterol
- Thyroid disorders
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- GERD or Chronic Ulcers
How to Avoid Depression
There are some ways to avoid becoming depressed or reduce the symptoms. Depression is less likely when the individual is active both physically and mentally. Maintaining a full schedule of activities that one enjoys is an excellent measure to avoid social isolation and depression. Talking about your feelings with a therapist, or even a trusted friend or family member can bring significant relief to the symptoms of depression. Eating healthy and staying fit are also a key component of maintaining good physical and mental health. Make sure that all medications are being taken as prescribed, and if you are feeling symptoms of depression suddenly after starting a new medication, talk to your doctor.
About the Author: Pam Reynolds, CMC is the President and co-owner of Allegiance Aging Care Services. Pam has spent almost fifteen years working in senior care including long term care facilities and home health care. Her higher education is in Social Work, and she has been credentialed as both a certified Geriatric Care Manager and Licensed Assisted Living Administrator. Read more about Pam and her team of Aging Care Professionals here.