Depression: A problem for many older adults

By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | March 19, 2015

Depression is a common problem in older adults. The symptoms of depression affect every aspect of life, including one’s energy, appetite, sleep, and interest in work, hobbies, and

relationships. Unfortunately, senior depression is often overlooked, and many depressed seniors do not get the help that they need.

Depression in older adults is often overlooked for the following reasons:

• Misconception that depression is a normal part of aging

• Many seniors are isolated with few people around to notice distress

• Feelings of depression are often attributed to physical complaints

• Reluctance in the elderly to talk about their feelings or ask for help

As we age there is an increase in life challenges that put seniors at risk for depression. These include major transitions such as retirement and relocation, death of loved ones, health problems, changes in sense of purpose and life direction, concerns about facing one’s mortality, as well as isolation due to living alone and decreased socialization.

Senior Depression

While depression and sadness might seem to go hand and hand, many depressed seniors claim not to feel sad at all. They may complain, instead, of low motivation, a lack of energy, or physical problems. In fact, physical complaints, such as arthritis pain or worsening headaches, are often the predominant symptom of depression in the elderly.

For many seniors depression will look like irritability, lack of patience and frustration.

Recognizing depression in the elderly starts with knowing the signs and symptoms. Senior depression “red flags” are:

• Unexplained or aggravated aches and pains

• Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness

• Resistance to receive support or assistance

• Memory problems

• Lack of motivation and energy

• Slowed movement and speech

• Irritability and increased frustration

• Loss of interest in socializing and hobbies

• Neglecting personal care (skipping meals, forgetting medication, poor personal hygiene)


Grief and Depression

Distinguishing between grief and clinical depression isn’t always easy, since they share many similar symptoms. However, there are important differences. Grief is a normal reaction and a healthy response to a significant loss in one’s life. The experience of grief is like a roller coaster, with some good days and some bad. Most people with grief have moments of pleasure and happiness and have a sense that their feelings of sorrow won’t last forever. Depression, on the other hand, is a chronic and pervasive experience of emptiness and despair.

Unlike grief, depression is characterized by:

• Low self-esteem and self-worth

• Feelings of hopelessness

• Thoughts of suicide or preoccupation with dying


Dementia and Depression

Since depression and dementia share many similar symptoms, including memory problems, never assume that a loss of mental sharpness is just a normal sign of aging. It could be a sign of depression or dementia, both of which are common in older adults and the elderly.

Differences between symptoms of depression and dementia are:

Signs of Depression: Mental decline is relatively rapidly, Knows the correct time, date, and situation, Difficulty concentrating, Slight slowing of motor and language functioning, Notices or worries about memory problems

Signs of Dementia: Mental decline happens slowly, Confused and disoriented, Difficulty with short term memory, Impaired writing, speaking, & motor skills, Doesn’t notice memory problems

Treatment of Depression

It’s a myth to think that after a certain age you can’t learn new skills or make efforts to change your life. The human brain never stops changing and we are never too old to learn something new. Thus, older adults are just as capable as younger people to adapt to new ideas. Overcoming depression often involves finding new things to enjoy and learning to adapt to change.

Below are some strategies to help depressed seniors get back on track:

• Meet with your Physician

It is recommended that all persons who experience symptoms of depression talk to their medical doctor. In particular, this is important for older adults because symptoms of depression can be side effects of prescription medication or a sign of a serious medical condition. Your doctor may refer the senior to a Psychiatrist or prescribe an antidepressant medication to ease symptoms.

• Connect with Others

Because seniors are more likely to feel isolated and alone, increasing socialization becomes increasingly important. When we are on our own it can be difficult to maintain perspective and sustain the effort required to beat depression. Start by joining a support group, or social group such as book club, or mahjong. Many seniors find comfort by involving themselves in their particular religious community.

• Exercise

Physical activity has powerful mood-busing effects. In fact, research suggests that frequent exercise can be just as effective as medication in relieving certain symptoms of depression. Look for small ways to add movement to your day such as taking short walks, gardening, and light housework. Consider participating in exercise classes suited specifically for seniors such as yoga for seniors, water aerobics and “sit and fit.”

• Practice Good Self-Care

When experiencing depression it becomes even more important than ever to focus on self-care. For example, eating healthy, practicing good sleep hygiene, and participating in activities that you enjoy. Staying focused on what brings you pleasure and gives you a sense of purpose and meaning is one of the surest ways to combat depression. This may take a certain amount of creativity such as volunteering, taking responsibility for something living, or learning a new skill.

• Consider Additional Support

Many seniors may find it helpful to talk about how they are feeling with a neutral, third party such as a therapist. Nine out of ten elder adults will say that they do not wish to burden their children with their problems. As such, they may not feel comfortable opening up to someone in their immediate circle. When choosing a therapist, it is most important to consider the relationship between the client and therapist. Your therapist should treat you with respect and honor your individual values and needs.

Ways to support seniors

If a loved one that you care about is depressed, you can make a difference by offering emotional support and talking with him or her about your concerns. It is usually best to approach the conversation from your personal perspective rather than a judgment based on the individual. For example: instead of saying “I think you need help,” say, “It would help me feel better if you would consider talking to someone.” Resist the urge to try to “fix” your loved one’s problems.

Rather, direct your energies to helping guide them to the resources that they need to help them get back on track. For example, your loved one may need help identifying a doctor or therapist that specializes in working with seniors. They may also need assistance navigating the internet to find programs, classes, and groups to join.

Other ways that you can help your loved one:

• Invite your loved one out

• Schedule regular social activities

• Plan and prepare healthy meals

• Encourage your loved one to follow through with treatment

• Watch for suicide warning signs

The very nature of depression interferes with a person’s ability to seek help. For seniors in particular, it may be difficult to acknowledge distress and seek support when necessary. With patience and understanding – and offering the loved one the respect and dignity that they deserve will help ensure improved mood and functioning. Depression isn’t a sign of weakness or a character flaw. It can happen to anyone, at any age, no matter your background of previous accomplishments in life. Whether you’re 18 or 80, you don’t have to live with depression. Senior depression can be treated, and with the right support, treatment, and self-help strategies, seniors can feel better and live a happy and vibrant life.

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