Understanding Depression In Elderly Persons

Understanding Depression In Elderly Persons

Posted on October 15, 2014 by ElderCare Resources Phoenix in Blog, Caregiver Education, Caregiving, Healthy Living, Independent Living

Navigating Senior Health: Depression is not simply feeling sad

By Pamela Leland, PhD

More than 6 million people age 65 or older suffer from depression. This is more than 15 percent of the senior population.

Depression is often assumed to be a natural part of the aging process. Who wouldn’t be depressed, right? You physically can’t do the things you used to do. You may not be able to hold all the details in your head or remember everyone’s name so easily. You have many friends who have illnesses or physical limitations. And your circle of friends is shrinking as people pass away.

But depression is not sadness. Nor is it grief.

Sadness and grief are natural emotions that we experience throughout our life when confronted with situations of pain and loss. Everyone, regardless of age, carries extreme sadness at times, but we still manage our lives.

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Depression, on the other hand, is indicated when the symptoms (that may seem like sadness) are persistent and disruptive to one’s ability to function normally for a prolonged period of time.

It is a serious illness. It is also treatable. In this respect, it is no different than heart disease or diabetes.

Left untreated, depression can lead to poorer health, disability, premature death and/or suicide. When treated properly, more than 80 percent of those who are affected will fully recover.

Depression among the elderly is often hard to recognize.

First, seniors may have trouble acknowledging feelings of persistent and debilitating sadness. Those who are older than age 65 today were raised during a time when depression was not understood or recognized as an illness with physical or biological roots. There was a greater level of stigma against mental illness than exists today.

Many seniors continue to hold to a belief or opinion that one should “just get over it” or “suck it up.” They may, in fact, blame themselves for not being able to “snap out of it.” This only leads to worsening depression.

Second, depression may not be expressed as overwhelming sadness. In fact, many depressed seniors don’t indicate feeling sad. Instead, they talk about a lack of energy, apathy, low motivation, or ongoing but nonspecific physical pain.

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Some of the signs of depression in older adults include:

• Lack of appetite

• Loss of interest in hobbies or friends

• Weight changes

• Difficulty sleeping

• Withdrawal from activities; increased isolation

• Anxiety or worries

• Lack of focus; trouble concentrating

• Irritability

• Neglecting personal hygiene

The important thing to remember is that depression can happen to anyone. There need not be any obvious precipitating event. Depression can occur through a variety of reasons, including:

• As a side effect of other medications that are being taken, such as blood pressure medication, tranquilizers, steroids or painkillers.

• A physical element related to another condition or illness, such as thyroid disease or vitamin deficiency.

• Biological changes to the brain – changes that may or may not be related to the aging process.

However it occurs, it is important to remember that depression can be successfully treated.

Great progress has been made in treating depression with one, or a combination of, medications. A physician trained in mental health issues should be involved in assessing the individual to ensure it is the right medication and to monitor any side effects.

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Important to the effectiveness of any medication strategy is consistent and appropriate usage. For seniors with memory issues, it may be necessary to have a caregiver manage these medications.

Medications alone may not be sufficient, however, and these may be prescribed in combination with psychotherapy or another type of therapy. Some seniors, however, are unwilling to utilize psychotherapy because of the stigma that they continue to attach to depression and mental illness. In these situations, it is sometimes possible to accomplish the same goals through pastoral counselors, trained volunteers or qualified “friendly visitors.”

A third possible treatment is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT – or “shock treatments”). These have been found to have a very positive response for some individuals. And these are not the shock treatments of the 1950s! Through research into mental illness and brain physiology, ECT has evolved enormously in recent years.

How can you help someone who may be depressed?

If you wonder if someone you care for might be depressed, there are many things you can do.

• Most importantly, recognize that if someone is clinically depressed, this is a mental illness and will not be “fixed” through logic, cajoling, arm-twisting or rational argument.

• Offer support. Listen with patience and compassion. Don’t criticize.

• Invite them out to events and activities. Schedule these regularly.

• Ensure they eat regular meals composed of healthy and nutritious food.

• Encourage them to be as physically active as they can be.

• Encourage your loved one to see a doctor (knowledgeable in mental health) for a diagnosis.

• Make sure that your loved one follows through on any treatment. If necessary, get the support he or she might need to manage the prescribed medications.

• Learn – and watch for – the warning signs for suicide.

People who are depressed are suffering. If you know a senior who may be depressed, help them get the care and treatment that they need to be returned to health.

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