How to Identify Depression in the Elderly

The National Institute for Mental Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness recently released statements addressing the issue of depression in elderly Americans. They point to a common misconception that the common symptoms of depression are just signs of aging, leading to millions of older citizens to suffer in silence. The elderly face a unique set of conditions that drive depressive thoughts. The death of their spouse, long periods of inactivity, and limitations on personal freedom or mobility rank as the most common issues elderly patients cite as the reason for their depression. Coupled with health and financial anxieties, many elderly Americans and Canadians feel hopeless and utterly alone.


Though there are significant changes to the mind during the aging process, there are clear cut warning signs that you or your loved one may have depression.

Pain Without A Physical Cause.  Joint and muscle pain are part of growing older; however, there is a strong link between physical pain and chronic or major depression. The mind refers mental pain to the body, and it’s impossible to find a physical cause for the discomfort. Unfortunately, as the pain intensifies, the patient’s depression deepens. If you or your loved one has unexplained pain, schedule a visit with a mental health professional, as well as a doctor, to uncover the root cause.

Depression is common among older people

Energy Loss.  People at 70 don’t have the same energy level that they did at 20, and the loss of energy is natural. Where it becomes a problem is when the lack of energy leads to oversleeping, long naps in the middle of the day or the inability to motivate oneself to participate in activities once enjoyed. Again, this symptom creates a destructive cycle, where the person doesn’t have the energy to socialize, which leads to feelings of isolation, causing further depression.

The image of the cranky old man or woman is a popular one in American culture, often played as joke. The reality is that irritability is often a symptom of depression. The suffering feels sad, anxious or hurt, and they don’t know how to resolve their issues, so they lash out at the people around them. Irritability can also be a reflection of insomnia or poor sleeping patterns. Constant anxiety and pain may make sleep difficult, leading to bad moods during waking hours.

Neglected Personal Care.  Once depression sets in, sufferers begin to neglect their personal care. This includes everything from taking a shower and washing their clothes, to eating regular meals. In a deep depression the sufferer doesn’t see a reason to keep going, and they start to see themselves as valueless, so taking care of themselves is no longer a priority.

Suicidal Thoughts?  Suicide rates for the elderly are rising, and people over the age of 80 are the second most likely to commit suicide in the United States. It's currently estimated that people over 65 now account for close to 20 percent of all suicides. The actual rate may be even higher than reported, because deaths labeled accidental by coroners, such as overdoses, may have been intentional. Any talk of suicide or losing the will to live should be seen as a cry for help, and never ignored.

Depression in the elderly is a serious medical concern, especially as the population ages. Talk to your loved ones about their mental state, look for outward symptoms of depression, and stay engaged in their lives. Doing so will help alleviate the underlying causes of their depression, and make their final years as rich as their first.