Recognizing and handling depression in seniors

Recognizing and handling depression in seniors 07/03/2014

In recent years, public awareness campaigns have increased recognition of depression as a clinical illness. However, there is one demographic that is sometimes left out of the mental health discussion: senior citizens. Based on statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 20 percent of residents in assisted care communities may be experiencing depression.

A prevalent concern
NAMI determined that 6.5 million Americans age 65 and older are affected by depression. It’s common for people to assume depression is a normal part of aging because older people are often coping with illnesses, social changes and loss. While it’s possible to draw a connection between feelings of dependence and depression, the latter is a separate ailment.

There are natural feelings of grief or sadness that will come with these transitions, but depression is more than that. It may last for months and there typically isn’t a direct solution to the emotional distress seniors feel while depressed. Causes of depression include side effects from medication, hormonal changes associated with age and a family history of the illness. Prolonged and untreated depression can bring about physical side effects as well. The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation said it’s possible for depression to affect people without a clear reason. There is sometimes the misconception that a specific concerning event is at the root of depression.

Progress has been made in reducing the stigma associated with mental illness. It’s more socially acceptable to talk about the dark feelings and treatment attempts now than ever before. Most seniors were raised in a time when a depression diagnosis came with judgment and shame. Because of this, some of the affected seniors may have been depressed throughout their lives.

Common signs
According to NAMI, family members can mistake depression for symptoms of other illnesses, including dementia, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, strokes and cancer. Seniors may be reluctant to say they are depressed when asked, but there are several signs to be on the lookout for.

  • Irritability
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Delusions or hallucinations
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased appetite
  • Confusion
  • Memory problems
  • Complaints of pain
  • Decreased social interaction
  • Reaching out for help
  • Demanding behavior
  • Slow movement
  • Consistent yet vague complaints

The role of healthy living
The Mayo Clinic reported on the connection between diet and depression. Research found that middle-aged people who often ate sugary food, fried food, high fat dairy and processed meats confirmed symptoms of depression more than healthy eaters. Meanwhile, participants who typically stuck to a diet of fruits, vegetables and fish were less likely to disclose depressed feelings. 

How to approach the situation
According to NAMI, 80 percent of people with depression can see improvements in their moods through treatment. If you believe your loved one is showing signs of depression, it may be best to contact his or her doctor. NAMI suggested a physical exam to rule out medical issues that can contribute to depressive symptoms.

The most common methods of depression treatment are medications and verbal therapy. Often, the two practices are used in conjunction for the greatest effect. Psychotherapy shows the best results when a senior is comfortable with the therapist because it’s important for someone with depression to feel able to share their emotions.

Antidepressant drugs work by adjusting chemical imbalances in the brain. There are hundreds of medications available to treat depression, so sometimes doctors have to try a few different types before one is successful at treating the symptoms. The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation reported that medications may appear ineffective if doses are not taken consistently. Though treating with daily medications may be concerning for people who have dementia, staff at a memory care community can monitor and manage meds for maximum safety.