Understanding Depression in Elderly People

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An old man passing through depression in elderly phase of life

Have you ever noticed the depression in elderly people around you? Do you see such people lose interest in the activities they once enjoyed, or feel helpless and hopeless?

Can you imagine that they are undergoing depression in their lives at this age!

Such seniors undergoing depression could be your parents and grandparents, or your neighbor, family, or friend. The depression in elderly can affect anyone you know.

I feel so overwhelmed hearing about such cases and people. They face hardship all their life, yet have to undergo suffering when they ought to be reaping the fruits of their labor, relaxing, and enjoying life.

Though I don’t want to scare you, but it could also happen to us when we grow old, if we’re lucky enough to be alive till then. The truth is that life is so uncertain, we don’t know what tomorrow holds for us.

Often it’s the changes that come later in the lives of the elderly, like, retirement, isolation, medical problems, or the death of loved ones that leads to depression.

I know a few elderly people who are undergoing depression and suffering in their lives, and thought to write about it today.

“The world is full of suffering; it is also full of overcoming it.” ~ Helen Keller

Depression in Elderly People

Depression is the most common mental condition that can be treated. It is a medical illness where a person has persistent feelings of sadness, discouragement, and a lack of self-worth.

Depression in seniors is a widespread problem, though contradictorily, it’s one of the most overlooked.

The depression in elderly people presently affects nearly 6 million Americans aged 65 and older. And this figure is going to rise higher as the population ages.

But, can you believe that out of them only 10% receive treatment for it. Isn’t this fact surprisingly alarming?

That’s because sometimes physician don’t recognize the signs and symptoms of depression. Or because the seniors don’t go for medical checkups believing that feeling low is part of aging.

Another reason is that the elderly display the depression symptoms differently. Their depression is sometimes confused with the effects of various illnesses and the medicines used to treat them.

Depression in elderly people often occurs along with other medical disabilities and illnesses, and lasts longer. It increases their risk of cardiac diseases and death from other illnesses.

This state of sadness in seniors reduces their ability to rehabilitate. Such depression also increases the risk of suicide, which in people of age 80 to 84 is more than twice that of other age groups.

Risk Factors of Depression in the Aged

As our elders grow older, they face many life changes that can put them at a risk for depression. Such risk factors include:

  • Being single, unmarried, divorced, or widowed.
  • Older women are more at risk because biological factors like hormonal changes make them more vulnerable than men. Also, the stresses of caring for children or an ill loved one, and maintaining relationships falls on women more.
  • Stressful life events and situations.
  • Lack of supportive family, friends, and social network.

Sometimes many elders don’t admit to feeling depressed because of the fear that they will be seen as “mad” or “weak”.

Some feel that nothing can be done about it now, or they don’t admit to being depressed because they don’t want to be a burden on the family.

“Depression is only reached the instant your mind rejects the most basic of instincts – the need to survive at all costs.” ~ Demarcole

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Depression in Elderly People

As the elderly often have physical illnesses, it’s tough to know whether some symptoms are due to the illness or depression.

You can recognize the signs and symptoms of depression in elderly people by noticing the following:

Keep a check whether your seniors are –

  • Fatigued.
  • Irritable.
  • Sad.
  • Having disturbed sleep, like problem in falling or staying asleep. Or are they oversleeping, or sleeping during the daytime.
  • Abandoning or losing interest in their hobbies or other pastimes they enjoyed.
  • Losing their appetite or experiencing weight loss.
  • Isolated or socially withdrawing by reluctant to be with family, friends, or engage in activities, or leave home.
  • Not taking care of the home.
  • Not bathing, shaving, or changing. Their clothes might be dirty and wrinkled, and sometimes they might even smell of urine and stool.
  • Not taking prescribed medicines or don’t take them correctly.
  • Experiencing memory problems and confusion.
  • Facing delusions and hallucinations.
  • Feeling worthless, or worrying about being a burden. Or having feelings of guilt and self-blame.
  • Drinking too much alcohol or using other drugs.
  • Thinking about suicide or attempt it, or have thoughts about death.

Sometimes depression in elderly seniors isn’t due to sadness. Instead, it’s due to lack of energy, low motivation, memory problems, or some physical or health problems.

Sometimes the initial sign of depression in elderly individuals can be a constant worry about having a physical illness, even when the doctor can’t really find anything wrong with them.

Thus, it’s important to get your seniors evaluated and treated, even if the depression is mild. Get to know the causes of their depression and help them out.

 “You largely constructed your depression. It wasn’t given to you. Therefore, you can deconstruct it.” ~ Albert Ellis

Depression in old age ~ YouTube Video

Causes of Depression In Elderly People

When we are depressed, we often blame ourselves because depression makes us see things negatively. We may start to blame ourselves for things we aren’t responsible for, though that’s not always the case.

The many causes of depression in elderly seniors are:

1- Health problems

Persistent or severe pain, illness and disability, cognitive decline, damage to the body due to surgery, or illness like amputation and cancer surgery can cause depression.

Other health problems like stroke, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, dementia, and atrial fibrillation further increase the risk of depression.

Even Parkinson’s diseases, thyroid disorders, vitamin B12 deficiency, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s diseases can either directly or psychologically result in depression.

2- Loneliness and isolation

If an elder is living alone, or has decreased mobility due to illness or loss of driving privileges, or isn’t able to drive – it can result in depression.

Sometimes when they have to adapt to or move to a new home or an apartment, it can depress them. Or when their children and grandchildren move away to a different place, it leaves them feeling lonely and sad.

Also, dwindling social circle due to deaths or relocation can make them feel alone and depressed.

3- Fears

Depression in elderly citizens can occur due to anxiety over health issues or financial problems. Even the fear of death or dying can cause depression.

4- Bereavements

Death of family members, friends, pets, or the loss of a partner or spouse, can result in the elders feeling depressed and sad.

I’ve often noticed that if one spouse dies, the one left also passes away sooner than usual. I guess it’s the attachment they have of being together for so long that makes it happen.

5- Reduced sense of purpose

When there is a loss of identity or feeling of aimlessness due to retirement, or due to physical limitations on activities, the depression sets in.

6- Intake of certain medicines

Intake of certain medicines or a combination of certain medications can induce depression in elders. These include sleeping pills, painkillers, estrogen, beta-blockers, tranquilizers, calcium-channel blockers and steroids.

Also included are drugs for the heart containing reserpine, drugs for arthritis, blood pressure medications, and high-cholesterol drugs.

If an elder feels depressed after taking new medication, they should talk to their doctor. He or she might reduce the dose or switch to a better alternative that doesn’t impact their mood.

7- Alcohol

Sometimes the elders tend to use alcohol to deal with emotional or physical pain. It also helps to keep their mind off an illness or makes them feel less lonely.

Some even drink at night to get sleep. When my Dad lost my Mom, he took to drinking to get sleep, though he overcame this habit long back and has left drinking altogether now. But yes, that was a tough time for him to deal with such a major loss in his life.

Alcohol might make you feel good at that moment or for a short time, but it can cause problems later. It leads to anxiety, depression, irritability, and impairs your brain function.

It reacts negatively with numerous medications, including antidepressants, and it impairs the quality of your sleep.

Besides these main causes, sometimes even the family history of major depressive disorder can be a reason.

Often people think that because depression in elderly individuals has set in – they aren’t capable of learning or doing anything new.

However, the human brain never stops changing and seniors are just as capable as others to learn new things or adapt to changes.

They can easily overcome depression by adapting to change. Or by finding new things to enjoy that will keep them active, and by staying physically and socially active.

“Many people think that depression is something you just have to live with when you get older, but it’s not.” ~ Tom Bosley

Overcoming Depression in the Elderly

If depression in elderly citizens is due to health problems, there are many treatment options available.

These include medicine, counseling or psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy, herbal remedies, natural supplements, or even a combination of these treatments.

However, if depression in elderly people is due to loneliness or any of the other causes mentioned above then there are other ways to overcome it.

You can help overcome depression in elderly seniors by helping them:

  • Connect with others, be it family or friends. You can even invite them to go out with you and enjoy together.
  • Keep physically active by exercise, as it boosts the mood.
  • Get enough sleep and rest.
  • Maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle.
  • Take part in activities they enjoy. Or participate in preparing a meal or playing games with them.
  • Take care of a pet, or even nurture a plant or garden.
  • Learn a new skill.
  • Volunteer their time to do something constructive.
  • By NOT doing things for them because it reinforces their perception that they are incapable and worthless.
  • Be a part of your family, especially if they are your parents, grandparents, or loved ones. And learn to respect, value, and love them for who they are.
  • Laugh with them, and share your time with them – they need that most of all.

All I can say from my personal experience is that we should listen to all elders with compassion and patience. More so, if they are within your family like your grandparents or parents.

Never force or push to talk, or do things they don’t like doing. Reassure them as much as you can when they seem troubled. It’s important to hear them out and honor their emotions.

I feel we should offer them hope instead of criticizing their feelings. Yes, your time is precious but so was theirs that they spent on you. We owe them that much now, don’t we?

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” ~ Leo Buscaglia

Over to you

How do you or would you deal with the condition of senior depression, especially if they are your loved ones? Share your thoughts below about dealing with depression in elderly people.

 

Photo Credit: Freedigitalphotos



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  1. Sunita Pandey

    February 22, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    My father is diagnosed with severe depression, last month…i due to some commitments was not able to talk to him..and came to know about it yesterday. My father will be retiring next year. Even his retirement plans were also ready…why is he depressed? It is hard to believe….and I m really sad I couldn’t talk to my parents for a month. How to talk to my mother and father about it….hard to talk to them….how can I help..please suggest some ways….now he is diagnosed with stones of 4.8 mm in kidney and swelling in liver ….so he is not eating anything and extremely weak….my father is a non drinker and non smoker and eat very balanced diet without sugar and very less oil. He is really fit and I am not able to accept it. Kindly guide me how can I help to get him back healthy as he was earlier.

    • Harleena Singh

      February 22, 2015 at 8:15 pm

      Welcome to the blog Sunita 🙂

      I’m sorry to hear the state of your father. As for the possible causes, you’ve already read them in this post. Only a medical professional, a doctor or a psychologist , will be best able to discern the real cause.

      From your comment, I feel it could also be a possibility that he is not comfortable with the fact that he is retiring. Whatever it is, he needs the love and support of all the family members, and needs to take good care of his health, both physical and mental.

      I’d suggest to open and improve the communication channels with your parents – this is the age when they need you the most. Regarding the kidney stones and swelling in liver, its best to seek a medical specialist’s opinion. These could happen to anyone and can also be cured with medications if in early stages.

      Depression is not without any reasons. Whatever they may be, even if they seem insignificant to you, they may be enough to bother your father a lot. Fears are our worst enemy, and only love can woo it away.

      I hope this helps and that you will take some action soon. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experiences with us. 🙂

      BTW – Do add a gravatar or profile picture so we know who we are talking to – just a friendly suggestion 🙂

      • srshpndy

        February 22, 2015 at 10:30 pm

        Thanks a lot for your suggestions.What
        and how to talk to dad…
        Will I increase his tensions…
        Your blog is really a great help….and yes reading the experiences of all new friends is great help…..
        Thanks and have a great day….




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Understanding Depression in Elderly People