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Depression in Seniors: What to Look for & How to Help

April 09, 2015, 06:34 AM


Depression is a risk at any age, but for the elderly, that risk is even higher. While the rate of diagnosed depression amongst the general senior population is between less than 1-5%, the number rises to nearly 14% for hospitalized seniors and those requiring at-home care, while over 25% of seniors report persistent feelings of sadness. Despite the association, however, depression is not a natural part of aging. Learn how to spot the warning signs of depression in the elderly and get help for your loved ones using this article as a guide.

Warning Signs & Side Effects of Elderly Depression

Depression in the elderly, especially for seniors with illnesses or health complications that require medication, can be more life-threatening than it is for other groups. Depressed seniors may stop taking, mix, or overdose on potentially lethal drugs.  Even if they medicate any other conditions properly, the group has an increased risk for heart disease, anxiety, and other physical manifestations of depression such as chronic pain in the joints & muscles.

Image Source (CC BY 2.0) by kkoshy via flickr

The best way to help treat depression is to catch it early and develop a plan with your loved one’s physician and/or a mental health counselor. Make sure to be actively involved in their care (even if you hire a caregiver to help) so that you can notice changes in behavior or demeanor before it’s too late. Common signs of depression in the elderly include:

  • Withdrawal from social activities and appointments with friends and family
  • Mood swings or unusual irritability
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities or general listlessness
  • Lack of personal hygiene or effort in appearance
  • Increase in pain that has no apparent physical cause

Your parent or loved one may also confess feelings of intense guilt, sadness, hopelessness, or worthlessness, or may even reveal thoughts of suicide or desire for death.

PLEASE NOTE: Just like you would with younger folks who are talking seriously about suicide, it may be necessary to enlist immediate outside help.  For more information, try calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or go to http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ for more information.

Dealing with Depression in the Elderly

Your initial instinct may be to dismiss these concerning feelings as expected of an elderly person, but your support is what will help your parent of loved one get better. Ask your parent how they are feeling and to explain his or her behavior without imposing clinical or threatening terminology; some seniors may retreat even further when suspected of being depressed or in need of medication or therapy.

Solitude, loneliness, and a reduced sense of purpose are common contributing factors to depression in seniors. If you are able to make changes to your parent’s routine in order to facilitate more social interaction such as involvement or enrollment in community events and visits from family and grandchildren, make it happen. If your parent is well enough, get him/her involved in exercise or outdoor activities. For the elderly who are bedridden or are physically confined to their surroundings, set up an internet connection and teach them to make video calls, browse the web, and get involved with like-minded seniors online. If your parent is not getting enough sleep or suffers from insomnia, speak to his or her doctor to treat those symptoms; sleeplessness and insomnia exacerbate and can even cause depression. Make your parent or loved one feel cared for in a way that he or she will appreciate and internalize to discover a renewed sense of purpose.

At the end of the day, seniors are an extremely important part of all of our lives. We owe them a large debt for making the world what it has become, and helping them with late-in-life bouts of depression is the least we can do.

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