Most people have experienced some form of depression in their lives at some point, but there is a myth that depression in senior adults is normal. As people age, many different things occur that will sadden us but when does it cross the line from being normal sadness into depression?
Depression is a medical illness in which a person has feelings of sadness, discouragement, and lack of self-worth. Grief over a loss is normal and may last for weeks or months, but losing all hope and joy is not normal.
Possible symptoms/signs of depression in an elderly adult can include:
- Pervasive and long-lasting sadness
- Chronic fatigue
- Abandoning or losing interest in hobbies or other fun activities
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Sleep disturbance (sleeping too much or too little)
- Increased anxiety or irritability
- Obsessive worrying
- Memory problems
- Increased use of alcohol or other drugs
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
- Giving things away
- Preoccupation with death
- Suddenly happier, calmer
- Stockpiling pills or obtaining a weapon
- Comments such as ‘nothing to live for’, ‘won’t be a burden on my family’ and other statements of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness
Depression is common but most people do not get the help they need and this is especially true with the elderly. Doctors usually focus on the physical issues and often miss the mental issues.
Only a medical or mental health professional can diagnose depression but it is usually friends, family and especially residential staff who can notice the symptoms first and who can then make sure the behaviors are addressed. Sometimes, behaviors that look like depression may actually be caused by something else (such as an allergic reaction to a medication, poor nutrition, not taking medications properly or an interaction between medications, etc.) but again, only a professional can make the diagnosis.
Senior adults are less likely than the general population to mention that they are depressed or are feeling down to their doctor or family and thus many never receive the help they need and continue to live a less than quality life style.
Untreated depression can lead to illness, alcohol and drug addiction, increased death rate and even suicide.
Depression in senior adults is different than in younger individuals. The elderly are less likely to complain, their doctors are less likely to assess them for depression, doctors are very willing to prescribe medications or increase narcotic types of medications if the patient complains of increased pain – without thoroughly checking to see if the increased pain is actually from a physical ailment that has gotten worse or if the increased pain is caused by a mental or emotional issue.
Elder adults have greater determination to die, give fewer warnings, and use more violent and deadly methods to commit suicide then younger populations. In fact, white men with depression are more likely to commit suicide. Suicide in people ages 80-84 is twice that of the general population. Seniors are apt to do more planning for suicide, have greater resolve and complete suicide at a higher rate.
The National Institute of Mental Health considers depression in people over 65 and older to be a major public health problem. Depression left undiagnosed or untreated decreases the person’s quality of life and could lead to fatal consequences.
The difficult changes that many elderly individuals face—such as the death of a spouse, leaving their home or medical problems—can lead to depression, especially in those without a strong support system. But depression is not a normal or necessary part of aging. In fact, most seniors are satisfied with their lives despite the challenges of growing old.