DEPRESSION IN OLDER ADULTS
Recognizing the Signs of Elderly Depression and Getting Treatment
Have you lost interest in the activities you used to enjoy? Do you struggle with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness? Are you finding it harder and harder to get through the day? If so, you’re not alone. Depression can happen to any of us as we age, regardless of our background or achievements. But depression is far from an inevitable part of getting older. With the right support, treatment, and self-help strategies you can boost the way you feel, cope better with life’s changes, and make your senior years a healthy, happy, and fulfilling time.
Are you an older adult with depression?
Depression is a common problem in older adults. And the symptoms of elderly depression can affect every aspect of your life, impacting your energy, appetite, sleep, and interest in work, hobbies, and relationships.
Unfortunately, all too many depressed older adults fail to recognize the symptoms of depression, or don’t take the steps to get the help they need. There are many reasons that elderly depression is so often overlooked:
- You may assume you have good reason to be down or that depression is just part of aging.
- You may be isolated—which in itself can lead to depression—with few around to notice your distress.
- You may not realize that your physical complaints are signs of depression.
- You may be reluctant to talk about your feelings or ask for help.
You can feel good at any age
Depression isn’t a sign of weakness or a character flaw. It can happen to anyone, at any age, no matter your background or your previous accomplishments in life. While life’s changes as you age—such as retirement, the death of loved ones, declining health—can sometimes trigger depression, they don’t have to keep you down. No matter what challenges you face as you age, there are steps you can take to feel happy and hopeful once again and enjoy your golden years.
Signs and symptoms of depression in older adults and the elderly
Recognizing depression in the elderly starts with knowing the signs and symptoms. Depression red flags include:
- Sadness or feelings of despair
- Unexplained or aggravated aches and pains
- Loss of interest in socializing or hobbies
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
- Lack of motivation and energy
- Sleep disturbances (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, oversleeping, or daytime sleepiness)
- Loss of self-worth (worries about being a burden, feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing)
- Slowed movement or speech
- Increased use of alcohol or other drugs
- Fixation on death; thoughts of suicide
- Memory problems
- Neglecting personal care (skipping meals, forgetting meds, neglecting personal hygiene)
Depressed older adults may not feel “sad”
While depression and sadness might seem to go hand and hand, many depressed seniors claim not to feel sad at all. They may complain, instead, of low motivation, a lack of energy, or physical problems. In fact, physical complaints, such as arthritis pain or worsening headaches, are often the predominant symptom of depression in the elderly.
Is it grief or depression?
As we age, we experience many losses. Loss is painful—whether it’s a loss of independence, mobility, health, your long-time career, or someone you love. Grieving over these losses is normal and healthy, even if the feelings of sadness last for a long time.
Distinguishing between grief and clinical depression isn’t always easy, since they share many symptoms. However, there are ways to tell the difference.
Grief is a roller coaster involving a wide variety of emotions and a mix of good and bad days. Even when you’ll still have moments of pleasure or happiness.
With depression, on the other hand, the feelings of emptiness and despair are constant.
While there’s no set timetable for grieving, if it doesn’t let up over time or extinguishes all signs of joy—laughing at a good joke, brightening in response to a hug, appreciating a beautiful sunset—it may be depression.
Causes of depression in older adults
As we grow older, we often face significant life changes that can increase the risk for depression. These can include:
- Health problems – Illness and disability; chronic or severe pain; cognitive decline; damage to your body image due to surgery or sickness.
- Loneliness and isolation – Living alone; a dwindling social circle due to deaths or relocation; decreased mobility due to illness or a loss of driving privileges.
- Reduced sense of purpose – Feelings of purposelessness or loss of identity due to retirement or physical limitations on activities you used to enjoy.
- Fears – Fear of death or dying; anxiety over financial problems or health issues.
- Recent bereavements – The death of friends, family members, and pets; the loss of a spouse or partner.
Medical conditions that can cause elderly depression
It’s important to be aware that medical problems can cause depression in older adults and the elderly, either directly or as a psychological reaction to the illness. Any chronic medical condition, particularly if it is painful, disabling, or life-threatening, can lead to depression or make your depression symptoms worse.
- Parkinson’s disease
- Heart disease
- Thyroid disorders
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
Elderly depression as a side effect of medication
Symptoms of depression can also occur as a side effect of many commonly prescribed drugs. You’re particularly at risk if you’re taking multiple medications. While the mood-related side effects of prescription medication can affect anyone, older adults are more sensitive because, as we age, our bodies become less efficient at metabolizing and processing drugs.
If you feel depressed after starting a new medication, talk to your doctor. You may be able to lower your dose or switch to another medication that doesn’t impact your mood.
Medications that can cause or worsen depression include:
- Blood pressure medication (e.g. clonidine)
- Beta-blockers (e.g. Lopressor, Inderal)
- High-cholesterol drugs (e.g. Lipitor, Mevacor, Zocor)
- Tranquilizers (e.g. Valium, Xanax, Halcion)
- Calcium-channel blockers
- Medication for Parkinson’s disease
- Sleeping pills
- Ulcer medication (e.g. Zantac, Tagamet)
- Heart drugs containing reserpine
- Steroids (e.g. cortisone and prednisone)
- Painkillers and arthritis drugs
- Estrogens (e.g. Premarin, Prempro)
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