When visiting your aging mother, she seems down - again. She’d rather sleep then play her favorite game of checkers with you. You thought she was just feeling blue, but your senior parent hasn’t been herself in nearly a month. Everyone feels blue now and then due to circumstances in life. However, sadness that lingers more than two weeks often is considered a symptom of depression. Depression is different from sadness as it is associated with long-term feelings of helplessness that affect happiness, appetite, sleep and relationships. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of depression in seniors and getting the right treatment and support can put them back on track to a fulfilling life.
What Triggers Depression?
Late-Life depression affects nearly 6 million Americans aged 65 and older. Seniors are more prone to depression due to stress, sorrow or loneliness caused by significant life events or decreasing capabilities. Loss of independence or declining health can trigger depression in the elderly. Feelings of isolation due to dwindling social circles and bereavements of loved ones and friends also contribute to this mental disorder.
Even retirement that leads to financial concerns and a loss of purpose increases the risk for depression. Some chronic medical conditions can contribute or deepen depression such as stroke, heart disease, chronic pain and different forms of dementia.
Gender too plays a role. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, women are at greater risk and twice as likely as men to become seriously depressed due to hormonal changes, the stress of caring for an ailing spouse or widowhood.
Medications that Deepen Depression
One out of eight American seniors takes at least one medication with many taking three or more daily. Many drugs can cause symptoms of depression or negatively impact the condition such as:
Should a senior show signs of depression when using specific medications, consult with the doctor about switching to another one or reducing the dosage. Ask about side effects with any new medications, even those purchased over the counter.
- Blood pressure medications
- High-cholesterol drugs
- Ulcer medications
- Meds for Parkinson’s disease
- Arthritis drugs
What Are the Signs of Depression?
Knowing the signs of depression is important as many overlook it in seniors as just sadness or dementia. Symptoms of depression vary by the individual. Any adult experiencing one or more of the following symptoms for more than two weeks may suffer from depression, according to the National Institute on Aging.
- Long-term feelings of sadness, anxiousness, hopelessness or helplessness
- Restless and irritable
- Crying for no apparent reason
- Loss of interest in favorite activities
- Fatigued when not doing much
- Withdrawn from family and friends
- Decreased activity or talking
- Difficulty with concentration and decision-making
- Increased or lessened sleeping or eating
- Struggle to perform small tasks
- Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts
The Difference Between Dementia and Depression
Depression can manifest itself with symptoms familiar to dementia. Here are some ways to distinguish these conditions to ensure correct diagnosis and treatment:
Slow mental decline
Rapid mental decline
Know the date, time and location
Confusion and disorientation
Difficulty with concentration
Problems with short-term memory
Slow but normal language and motor skills
Impaired language and motor skills
Worry about memory loss
Don’t realize or care about memory problems
Effects of Depression
Depression can affect more than mental health. For older people, especially those with existing medical conditions and disabilities, depression can lower the immunity to fight against infections and disease. In fact, depression can slow recovery and even worsen existing medical illness such as diabetes, cancer and dementia. This depressive disorder also increases the risk of cardiac diseases and death following a heart attack.
Suicide risks always exist with depression, especially with those having a history of threats or attempts. If your senior talks or behaves with suicidal tendency, take their actions seriously and seek immediate professional help.
Aging adults can take immediate steps to avoid the onset of depression such as keeping in touch with family and friends as isolation is a trigger for this condition. Schedule regular visits with your aging loved ones so they look forward to visits and frequently interact with others. Regular exercise along with a balanced diet help seniors maintain both mental and physical fitness for a good mind and body. Keeping active with favorite hobbies or pursuing new activities provide a sense of purpose and something to anticipate.
A daily caregiver can help rebalance seniors’ lives by spending time with them and taking them out into the world on a regular basis to go to the hairdresser or to go outdoors for walks. With regular company from a caregiver, your aging parents won’t feel lonely or isolated from the world when family can’t be by their side during certain days.
Up to 57% of older adults suffer from some form of chronic depression later in life. If you believe your senior suffers from depression, start with a visit to their physician who can recommend a specialist that can conduct a physical and/or mental evaluation. Various treatment options exist for depression including both therapy and medications. Finding the right one might take time and include a mix of both.
Counseling and therapy provide individuals with forums for talking about feelings and relationships. Many elderly people are reluctant to talk to family or friends. Therapy and support groups can help seniors to discuss their problems one-on-one with a professional or in a group setting among peers facing the same problem. (Find a local support group at DBSA Chapters/Support Groups or call the NAMI Helpline for support and referrals at 1-800-950-6264.)
Different types of antidepressants help control mood and stress. Seniors often take other medications for different health conditions. Discuss any adverse effects or potentially harmful interactions with the prescribing physician before taking any new drugs. Also, ask about the effects and benefits of over the counter medicines or herbs in combination with medicines.
Everyone reacts to life and health changes in different ways. Depression does not mean someone is weaker than another person. It is an illness that must be treated just like any other. If your aging loved ones seems down for a long time, take the necessary steps for a diagnosis to determine if depression is taking hold of their life so they can get the right treatment to regain control of their emotions and their happiness.