Chronic depression is a legitimate mental illness and requires diagnosis and treatment to effectively manage it and reduce symptoms. This is the case for everyone who has it, including those suffering from elderly depression, which may be more common than you think. Mental Health America reveals that approximately 2 million people over the age of 65 deal with some type of depression. While that is not the majority, seniors are generally at a higher risk of developing the disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, those who have other illnesses and limited functions are more likely to struggle with depression, and 80 percent of the elderly population have at least one chronic condition. What makes the problem worse is that older adults are often misdiagnosed and not treated correctly because their physicians attribute their symptoms to normal aging or see them as a typical response to other medical conditions. This means many of those suffering from geriatric depression are simply trying to deal with their illness on their own and spending their later years in misery.
Fortunately, recognizing and treating clinical depression in elderly people is possible if you know the signs and what healthcare options are available to help. If you are concerned your loved one might be struggling with depression or anxiety, be on high alert for potential risk factors and symptoms that may indicate there’s a problem and it’s not just the normal aging process.
Clinical Depression in the Elderly: Risk Factors
While older adults are generally thought to be in their golden years – enjoying retirement with little stress – there are a lot of components of senior life that can spark the onset of geriatric depression. Physical and emotional triggers that often come with normal aging can be risk factors for the illness, and may include any of the following:
- Death of spouse/loved ones: When a person’s spouse or friends and relatives pass away, the result is often a feeling of unbearable sadness. It also translates to the loss of an elderly person’s support system and sense of control.
- Comorbidity: As mentioned earlier, having another disease or disorder can increase the chances an elderly person develops depression. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) notes that some research has suggested there is a link between elderly depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, those dealing with depression and at least one other ailment, such as heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, or arthritis, usually experience a slower response to treatment.
- Declining health: The frustration and stress that come with the deterioration of someone’s body as they age can be disheartening. As vision, hearing, and strength begin to decrease, seniors may lose their sense of purpose and begin to feel an apathy toward life and the things they used to enjoy. Limited physical abilities can be especially taxing on older adults who are still mentally sharp.
- Medications: Certain medicines and/or combinations of medicines can create side effects that affect an elderly person’s emotional stability. Medications cause different responses in different people, so a prescription that works for one person may cause a negative reaction in others.
- Facing mortality: When people watch loved ones around the same age start to pass away, they are faced with their own mortality. The realization that their time is limited can make some elderly folks lose motivation and interest in living out the rest of their lives to the fullest.
- Isolation: For those who live alone and don’t have daily responsibilities (e.g., a job to go to, kids to care for, etc.), the feeling of isolation may be prominent. Some seniors pull back and don’t make the effort to stay social, leaving a sense of loneliness and alienation.
Older adults experiencing these situations may begin to show signs of depression. Some signs can be confused with side effects of other diagnosed conditions, so it’s important for family members to know what symptoms to look for.
Common Signs of Geriatric Depression Explained
Existence of a common sign of geriatric depression does not necessarily imply there is a serious chronic condition. For example, after a loved one’s death, sadness is to be expected in the short term and isn’t a major red flag unless it becomes persistent and long lasting. Along with chronic sadness, telling symptoms of elderly depression include:
- Crying spells: Shedding tears after the spouse passes away or receiving news of a health problem are normal. If your loved one cries uncontrollably frequently, and for no obvious reason, there might be an issue.
- Suicidal ideation: The desire or attempt to harm or kill oneself is not normal and is a reason to seek treatment immediately. Per the APA, suicidal thoughts are more common among senior citizens, especially if they live with a disability or can’t take care of themselves.
- Sleeping difficulties and insomnia: Elderly people dealing with geriatric depression see higher rates of insomnia and memory loss. This may mean waking up exceptionally early in the morning or oversleeping due to frequent wake-ups at night.
- Loss of interest in hobbies: When an elderly person stops getting joy from activities he or she once loved, depression may be the culprit. This is especially a possibility if there aren’t physical limitations holding the senior back.
- Appetite and/or weight changes: Much like with people at every age, emotional disorders can affect appetites and weight management. Elderly folks who are feeling sad and pessimistic may overeat as a comfort. On the other hand, the feelings of apathy and hopelessness that often come with depression may lead some to lose interest in food altogether.
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions: Losing interest in daily activities can lead some seniors dealing with geriatric depression to have trouble remembering details and focusing on their task at hand. A lack of concern for potential consequences and always expecting the worst, which can be additional side effects of depression, may also make it difficult for someone with the illness to make decisions.
- Pains without a clear physical cause: While aging often brings normal aches and pains, consistent discomfort without a reasonable explanation can indicate the development of geriatric depression. Some people experience frequent digestive issues, cramps, or headaches without finding relief from normal treatments.
If your loved one seems to be exhibiting any or a combination of these symptoms, it’s a good idea to speak to a mental health professional.
Available Treatments for Depression in the Elderly
Although there is no way to avoid the onset of depression in the elderly, there are effective treatment options available for older adults. Many of those suffering with geriatric depression won’t seek help on their own, so it is up to their loved ones to inform them of the condition and encourage them to get care. A treatment plan determined by their health care professional may include any of the following tactics:
- Exercise/diet adjustments: Maintaining optimum physical and mental health provides major support for other treatment methods. Plenty of information is available suggesting certain foods contribute to enhanced mood and higher energy levels, while exercise is known to produce endorphins, which are hormones that create a happy feeling.
- Individual therapy: Speaking to a mental health professional one-on-one about negative thoughts and feelings is often the first step when getting treatment for elderly depression. The basic idea behind counseling is to teach the affected senior to adjust poor habits and change his or her way of thinking.
- Group therapy: In some cases, group counseling may be a great option, especially if the geriatric depression has left the older adult feeling isolated. Talking about experiences with others who have similar ones, under the guidance of a psychiatric professional, can help individuals develop coping strategies.
- Pet/art therapy: Certain non-traditional therapies have produced great results when treating depression in elderly people, particularly if the patient also suffers from dementia. The National Institutes of Health report that therapies that stimulate senses, such as the art, music, or pet variations, may help boost mood, improve memory, and increase socialization.
- Medication: Anti-depressants may be prescribed to treat the chemical imbalance that causes geriatric depression. These should always be monitored by a health care professional, however, as the elderly may be at a higher risk for complications. The older population is often exceptionally sensitive to side effects, and there is a chance other prescriptions can even intensify those. Memory issues may also make the elderly miss doses or take too much (if they forget they already took it), which can lead to inadequate treatment or a possible overdose.
- Inpatient treatment: When elderly depression completely interferes with your loved one’s life or suicide is a serious concern, inpatient treatment might be the best solution. A behavioral healthcare hospital, such as Dallas Behavioral Healthcare Hospital in Texas, might have an inpatient geriatric program that is specifically designed for older adults dealing with mental illness. This option provides constant monitoring by a qualified psychiatric team and usually includes medication management and a combination of therapies based on the individual patient needs. Inpatient care also generally offers education and assistance for families of the admitted patient.
Many times, a treatment plan for someone with geriatric depression will include a combination of these tactics. For example, medication may take a several months to start working effectively in older adults, so therapy may be prescribed to get the recovery process started until the medicine has an impact. If multiple treatment techniques are necessary, taking your loved one to an inpatient facility may be the most effective course of action.