Depression in the Elderly

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It is often said by people that they are not afraid of dying, but afraid of getting old.  With the way the elderly are treated, it is not surprising to hear.  Growing old presents a lot of challenges.  They may have lost their lifelong spouse or had many people pass away around them who were important parts of their life for so long.  It’s no wonder that older people are at a high risk for depression and have the some of highest rates of suicide in the United States.

Quite often they do not get the depression treatment they need.  Serious depression affects about 6 million people age 65 and older, but only about 10% ever get treatment for depression.  To further the problem, many times the depression is simply not even considered and attributed to something else.  For example, an older person may just be labeled as grumpy.  Their feelings are often disregarded, helping them to feel alone.  Having any ongoing medical issues or disabilities also increase the frequency and severity of the depression.  Many seniors will blow off the idea that any problem might exist because of fear that they will become a “burden” to their family members and friends.

Looking for the Signs

While some of the signs of elderly depression are the same as in younger people, there are many differences.  One of the first and main symptoms of depression is a lack of energy and motivation.  They may not seem sad and will, in fact, tell you that they don’t feel depressed at all, but an overall lack of motivation and energy is they key symptom.  There are many other symptoms of depression specifically affecting seniors:

A focus on death or suicide because there is not much “to live for” once you are older.

Enhanced memory issues and slower speech.

Fear of being a burden, loss of self-worth

Difficulty sleeping, which is so important for seniors

Unexplained aches and pains, which is often a way to “get out of things”

Skipping meds, neglecting personal care

Increased irritability

And more common symptoms:

Loss of interest in socializing

Weight loss or gain

Increased use of alcohol or drugs

Feelings of sadness or despair

How Can We Help?

It’s very easy to tell older people what they should be doing but it’s much harder to listen.  It is important to allow them time to talk and express their feelings so that they know they are being heard and that someone values their opinion and friendship when so many others have abandoned them.  It makes them feel more comfortable and supported.

We can also offer our support while encouraging them to maintain their independence.  For example, don’t help them with a menial task just because of their age.  It is important for them to know that they are still capable of a lot.  Help with what you can and offer support where it’s needed.  If an elderly person can’t drive, offer to find solutions – but don’t become their personal chauffeur.

Try to encourage more exercise.  It’s a powerful way to feel better.  And they don’t have to have to be an 80-year-old deadlifting 500 pounds.  A simple walk can do wonders, as can simply moving around doing some light housework.

Just because a person is old does not mean they have to stay in one place.  Invite them out, to a restaurant, or to a museum.  It doesn’t matter what you do as much as it matters that you are together.

Above all, if you suspect that a senior loved one has any symptoms, do not hesitate to get seek depression treatment or the help of a professional.