Recognizing Depression in Older People
Sadly, depression in senior citizens is widespread across the U.S., and for many of these seniors, their mental health issues will go unnoticed by others. A big part of this may be due to the older person declining to open up about their depression, keeping it to themselves for fear of upsetting family members or else dismissing it as a sign of aging.
We shouldn’t just accept this as the norm, though. If we can recognize signs of depression in our elders, we may be able to intervene in a timely fashion and raise their spirits when it’s needed the most.
Elderly Depression Statistics
Did you know that:
- 68% of adults aged 65 and over know ‘little or nothing’ about depression.
- Only 38% of adults aged 65 and over would categorize depression as a health problem.
- Senior citizens are less likely than any other age group to seek medical help for depression, with only 42% saying they would pursue a healthcare professional.
- People aged 65 and over are almost 50% less likely to recognize signs of depression such as sadness and changes in dietary/sleeping habits than those who haven’t reached senior citizenship.
- 58% of people aged 65 and over believe that depression is ‘normal’ in growing older.
Source: Mental Health America
Why is depression in older people so often overlooked?
Depression in teenagers and young adults is become far more of an open book in the modern age, but the presence of this brutal condition in senior citizens retains its ‘swept under the carpet’ nature. According to Lynn Hetzler, renowned medical writer and author, “The symptoms of depression are like those for younger people but depressive disorders are often under-recognised and untreated in older adults.
Older adults and their families can sometimes try to reason away the signs of depression. They may assume that they have a good reason to be down or that it is simply part of the ageing process.”
A lot of senior citizens might dismiss depression as an inevitable facet of aging, or else they keep it to themselves for fear of upsetting family members. At the other end of the scale, they may often love nothing more than to talk about it but, because they live in isolation, they feel that they don’t have anyone to whom they can talk. Sometimes they fail to make the connection between physical ailments and depression.
Signs of depression in older people
- Feelings of sadness
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Little or no interest in socializing
- Loss of appetite
- Erratic sleeping patterns (too little/too much/inconsistent sleep)
- Loss of self-esteem
- Frequent use of alcohol or drugs
- Problems with speech or memory
- Disregard for personal care
- Suicidal thoughts or comments
Medical conditions linked with depression
- Parkinson’s disease
- Heart disease
- Dementia & Alzheimer’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
How depression differs from dementia
Katie Hurley, LCSW is the author of “No More Mean Girls” and “The Happy Kid Handbook.” She states that “Depression and dementia share several symptoms, making it difficult to distinguish between the two. It helps to how the common symptoms manifest in each disease.”
|Mental decline is gradual.||Mental decline happens very rapidly.|
|The person is often confused and has little or no awareness of his/her environment.||The person is fully conscious of his/her environment.|
|The person has difficulty with short-term memory.||The person has difficulty in focusing on the present.|
|The person’s writing, speaking and motor skills are severely diminished.||The person’s communication skills are slower than normal but not severely diminished.|
|The person isn’t aware of his/her short-term memory problems, nor is he/she overly worries.||The person is fully aware of his/her memory problems and is very concerned about these.|
What can older people do to ease depression?
Try to keep busy
- Try to find a social group in an area that you enjoy. If there isn’t one available, then invite family around or keep in contact with people through phone or email.
- Don’t become housebound. Go for a walk to the park or go out for lunch a couple of days a week.
- Consider volunteering in your community. You will feel so much better about yourself knowing that you’re helping to improve the lives of others.
- Take care of a pet. The companionship will give you a renewed vigor for life.
- Learn a new skill or take up a new hobby.
Get into healthy habits
- Get a bit of exercise every day insofar as you reasonably can. Even a 15-minute walk (or some gentle upper body stretching for people in wheelchairs) will make a major difference.
- Avoid sugary foods that will give you a short-term mood boost before crashing later. Proteins, carbs and healthy fats will keep your blood sugar on an even keel.
- Aim to get eight hours’ sleep a night and try to keep to a regular bedtime routine instead of mixing up your sleeping times and patterns every night.
- Stay away from alcohol. It might seem like a way of escaping your depression, but it will only end up making you feel even worse.
Seek professional help if needed
- If you find that antidepressant medication is ineffective, seek the assistance of a professional therapist.
- You could also try supportive counselling such as peer-to-peer support, or enlist the help of a depression support group where people will empathize with your situation and help you to overcome it.
How can caregivers or family help?
- Invite the depressed older person to spend time with you, whether it’s at their home or yours, or complete an activity together.
- Try to find an activity that the person can enjoy regularly. If they knew that they’d have an art class every week, for example, that gives them a renewed purpose.
- Prepare healthy meals for the person if he/she is unable to cook for themselves.
- Encourage the person to maintain his/her treatment or try to find alternative treatment that would work.
- Take any notions of suicidal thoughts very seriously and, if you notice these, talk to the person or advise them to seek professional help.
- Above all, just be there for the person and listen to them. Even a short, simple chat can mean so much to an older person suffering from depression.
Alice Lucey is the Director of Be Independent Home Care, a fully nurse-owned and managed home care company in Dublin, Ireland. She frequently writes online content covering a broad spectrum of matters relating to caregiving for senior citizens.