Recognizing Depression in the Elderly


By Jill Gonzalez

Elderly individuals go through a tremendous number of changes as they age. The loss of a spouse and other family members, and increasing medical problems all contribute to the development of depression, particularly in people who do not have a good support system to help them adjust to the changes that they have to go through.

Depression, however, is not a normal part of life for anyone. Senior citizens can, and should, feel happy and satisfied with their lives. It is important, therefore, that they have the proper outlets to be able to deal with the losses they experience in a way that does not turn into some type of depression.

How Serious Is the Problem?

The National Institutes of Health reports that approximately 2 million Americans aged 65 or older suffer from severe depression. Another 5 million older adults suffer from a less severe form of depression.

Depression among elderly adults is a common problem, and most of these people never receive any type of depression treatment. In many cases, the elderly live rather isolated lives, so other people are generally not aware that there is a problem. In other cases, older adults simply do not want to talk about their problems.

If left untreated, depression can lead to a host of health problems such as suicide, illness, and alcohol and prescription drug abuse. Fortunately, with the appropriate treatment and support system, older adults can overcome depression and get back to leading happy, productive lives.

Causes of Depression

Senior citizens are not only faced with declining health as they age, they also have to deal with the loss of loved ones. The primary risk factors and causes of depression in older adults include the following:

  • Medications: Some prescription medications can make symptoms of depression worse, or may trigger episodes of depression.
  • Isolation: Many senior citizens live alone and have fewer friends over the years either because of death or relocation. The elderly may also be restricted in how much they can get around because of declining health or a loss of their driving privileges.
  • Loss of loved ones: The death of spouses, family members, friends and pets may all contribute to the development of depression.
  • No sense of purpose: Because of physical limitations or retirement, older adults may start to feel like they have no real purpose in life anymore.
  • Fears: Worries about financial problems, health issues, death and dying all become factors for the elderly.
  • Health issues: Health issues such as chronic pain, illness and disability can also be factors leading to depression.

Symptoms of Depression

In order to help older adults who are suffering from depression, it is essential to understand the signs and symptoms of the disorder:

  • Fatigue
  • Increased use of prescription drugs or alcohol
  • Sadness
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Sleep disturbances, which may include difficulty falling asleep or sleeping too much
  • Losing interest in hobbies or other activities that used to be enjoyable.\
  • Loss of self-worth
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss

It is sometimes very difficult to properly diagnose depression in older adults simply because they are sometimes so efficient at hiding their feelings. In fact, many depressed seniors will say that they are not sad and that they are merely feeling tired or unmotivated. But when older adults begin to complain regularly about some type of chronic pain, such as arthritis or headaches, it is often a sign that they are suffering from depression.

How You Can Help

If you want to help an older adult who is depressed, one of the best things you can do is offer that person some emotional support. Many seniors want someone to talk to, so being an active listener is a great way to help a person who is depressed.

In addition, it is important that you remember to not be critical or judgmental. Offer support and assistance, and make sure that the person receives adequate medical attention.

Once properly diagnosed, doctors can prescribe appropriate medications and recommend a therapist for counseling sessions. If you want to continue to help, you can make sure that the person gets out of the house regularly, participates in at least a few social activities, and that treatment programs are followed through. In addition, you need to watch for suicide warning signs and ensure that all of the person’s medications are taken as prescribed.

Older adults need regular events, hobbies or social functions to attend so that they can remain physically and mentally active throughout their lives. They also need to eat healthy, balanced meals and connect to other people as much as possible.

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