How To Recognize Senior Depression In Yourself And Others

Bay Alarm Medical

April 20, 2019

Retirement is supposed to be “the last of life for which the first was made,” right? At least that’s what we’ve been told. The reality can be very different for many seniors who struggle with financial difficulties, health issues, and social isolation.  While others are living through their “golden years,” depressed seniors see only tarnish.

Depression is a significant mental health issue for seniors. Left untreated, minor depressive episodes can become major depression, also called clinical depression. Too often, untreated depression leads to poor health outcomes or even suicide.

Two-thirds of Americans over age 65 say they know “little or nothing” about depression. This article discusses the signs, causes, dangers, and treatment options for senior depression.

Signs of Clinical Depression

Geriatric depression often goes unrecognized and untreated in seniors because people assume that many symptoms are a “normal” part of aging. The signs of depression are the same, no matter what the age of the person.  Do any of these symptoms describe you or a loved one?

  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in activities and hobbies you once enjoyed
  • Irritability
  • Lack of energy/fatigue
  • Sleep problems – either sleeping too little or too much
  • Eating disorders including over-eating and loss of appetite
  • Feelings of guilt and/or helplessness
  • Thoughts of suicide

To be clear, feeling depressed sometimes is different from clinical depression. Everyone gets the blues, but clinical depression – feelings of sadness or anxiety that last for weeks or months – is a condition that requires treatment.

Risk Factors for Senior Depression

Older adults are at increased risk for depression. Health problems are a major risk factor.  Eighty percent of seniors have at one chronic health problem like diabetes or high blood pressure, while 77% of seniors have at least 2 or more chronic health conditions.

Mental health professionals cite other risk factors for senior depression, including:

  • Misidentification: Many of depression symptoms also match the symptoms of common diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, stroke, and thyroid disorders. Often, doctors are treating the wrong condition!
  • Family history: Depression tends to run in families. Anyone with a family history or personal history of depression needs to be alert to the symptoms.
  • Gender: Women are twice as likely as men to have clinical depression, but they’re more likely than men to seek treatment.
  • Stress: Chronic stress disrupts a person’s normal coping ability and affects work life and personal relationships. That can cause more stress that eventually leads to depression.
  • Loneliness: Long-term feelings of loneliness can become long-term depression, but not all depressed people are lonely.

Anyone experiencing these risk factors needs to be alert to signs of depression. Consider taking this brief depressing screening survey and sharing it your physician.

Health Risks Associated with Senior Depression

Clinical depression is a psychological problem that can have serious physical consequences for seniors. It increases the risk of developing physical illnesses, may exacerbate existing health problems, and accelerates cognitive decline.

  • Depressed seniors tend to be sicker and recover more slowly from illnesses. Because of this, they often require more assistance with self-care and daily activities.
  • Depression is associated with higher health care costs – up to 50% more than non-depressed seniors.
  • Senior depression is strongly associated with suicide, particularly in men.

As a group, seniors tend to equate depression with weakness, not realizing that is an actual disease and not their fault. Depression can be treated successfully and give seniors a better quality of life – if only they recognize it and seek medical attention.

Treating Depression in Seniors

There really shouldn’t be any stigma attached to seeking help. Depression affects people of all ages. Antidepressants are one of the three most-prescribed classes of drugs in the United States.  Between 2011 and 2014, over 12% of all Americans were taking them!  Pharmaceuticals, however, are only one solution.

Talk with your doctor about the best treatment for you.

  • Antidepressants are convenient, usually covered by insurance, and work well in most people. And they work!  Studies suggest that 2/3s of people experience either full remission or receive some level of positive improvement. However, they may also carry temporary or long-term side effects by themselves or when taken with other medications.  Always ensure that both your doctor and your pharmacist have a complete list of all your medications.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) often has positive benefits for seniors who are reluctant to take antidepressants or who didn’t respond to the medication. It’s a type of “talk therapy,” that focuses on  how a person’s thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes can affect feelings and behavior.

Mental Health Resources

There are many different types of resources to help seniors with depression.

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) hotline: A confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.
  • Talk to your doctor: Depression can be linked to medical conditions, particularly vascular disorders, or drug interactions.
  • Find the right therapist: This guide can help you choose a professional who is the best fit for you.

It’s so important to realize that depression is not a normal part of aging, and it doesn’t mean you’re weak or crazy. Depression is an illness that can be treated – often quite successfully.  There’s no need to suffer in silence when people are there to help.


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