Depression: A Common, Treatable Mental Condition
Depression is a common and treatable mental condition, yet in the elderly, it’s often ignored. This may be a result of prevalent stigmas or because some symptoms are associated being elderly (and therefore go unnoticed). This is unfortunate because according to recent research, the elderly experience more depression than you might think.
Physicians advise that if a loved one experiences any of the symptoms of depression (see below for a list) for more than two weeks, you should make an appointment with a doctor or mental health professional.
What is depression?
Depression is an emotional state with a physical component. The physical component is triggered by brain chemistry. With proper treatment, the physical symptoms lessen and there is a noticeable difference in mood and the ability to participate in daily activities.
How is depression different from being sad?
If you are like most people, you feel sad occasionally. But if the feeling lingers and you no longer enjoy activities that you once liked, you may be more than just “sad.” Feeling “down” for longer than a two-week period might be a symptom of clinical depression and most likely requires medical help. A physician who specializes in meeting seniors’ unique health needs—such as a geriatrician—can more easily diagnose and treat complex issues like depression than a general practitioner.
Symptoms of depression
- Aches and pains that don’t go away when treated
- An empty feeling
- Crying too often or too much
- Difficulty making decisions, remembering things and focusing
- Difficulty sleeping
- Eating more or less than usual
- Feelings of guilt, helplessness and hopelessness
- Lack of energy; tiredness
- Loss of enjoyment in everyday activities
- Ongoing anxiety and sadness
- Thoughts of death or suicide
How is Depression Treated?
Many geriatric specialists refer patients to mental health professionals who specialize in talk therapy. For many people, talk therapy—also known as psychotherapy—is an appropriate treatment for depression. Talk therapy can further your understanding of depression and help you manage the symptoms. The two most common forms of talk therapy are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy. CBT looks at negative thought patterns and explores how to change them and their associated behaviors. Interpersonal therapy looks at your relationships and addresses how you can make them more positive.
Another way to treat depression is through medication—there are many drugs that can help treat symptoms. Again, a geriatric specialist should be your first point of contact for this form of treatment.
Through these types of intervention, seniors can usually better manage both emotional and physical symptoms of depression and, in turn, improve their quality of life.
Why is depression so common in seniors?
Seniors experience depression for a variety of reasons. For many, depression runs in the family. For others, it’s a side effect of a medication they may be on to treat other health issues.
It can also be caused or intensified by changes in their social lives. They might feel lonely and without purpose after retirement. As they age, they may find they have fewer friends or loved ones as many of the people from their former social circles move to senior centers or nursing facilities far away. Driving to visit friends and family also becomes more challenging—and eventually impossible. Perhaps most trying is experiencing the passing of friends and family members on an increasingly regular basis.
There is also a higher incident level in this age group for experiencing chronic illnesses (cancer, dementia, heart disease, stroke, or Parkinson’s disease), ongoing physical pain or a general feeling of tiredness with the day-to-day demands of life—all factors that can lead to feelings of sadness and depression. In addition, they, themselves, may be experiencing the major life change of moving into assisted living or nursing care.
What can a caregiver or family member do about a senior’s depression?
Be active in your loved one’s life and don’t ignore symptoms of depression. If you notice persistent symptoms, talk to a medical professional. If appropriate, you can take your loved one to see a doctor—if unable to drive your loved one yourself, hire a geriatric care professional. These professional care managers are usually licensed nursing professionals or social workers who specialize in geriatrics. They can coordinate care through community resources and communicate with both the doctor and yourself about your loved one’s needs.
Symptoms of depression at any age should be taken seriously. Depression can take a serious toll on physical health (and may lead to stroke or coronary disease), especially when ignored. When addressed with medical help, affected seniors may quickly experience an improved quality of life and relief from some of their symptoms. Caregivers or family members should play a significant role in watching for these symptoms in the elderly as well as in following through with appropriate treatment. Remember, depression is a common, treatable mental condition, but only when it’s caught and addressed.