Depression in the elderly has been given many names over the years. From geriatric depression to late-life depression, one thing remains the same: this form of depression hits after the age of 65 and the damage it can cause is devastating. So regardless of what we call it, it’s important that we discuss and are educated about it.
The Importance of Depression in the Elderly
Depression can hit at any age, but older adults are at a higher risk of developing depression than any other age group. The majority of them have at least one chronic health condition, while about half of them have two or more. Many studies have shown a direct correlation between senior depression and a senior’s overall health. A senior’s risk for developing depression goes up if they have other illnesses such as heart disease or cancer, and depression that occurs later in life increases the risk for other medical disorders – including cognitive decline.
How is Depression in the Elderly Different?
Senior depression can differ from other forms of depression in a few major ways. The first disparity between the two types is the origin. Senior depression is often vascular (related to physical deterioration of the brain) and environmental (e.g. isolation or toxins). Depression that develops at an earlier age is typically genetic and arises from socially learned behaviors.
Depression in the elderly is also experienced differently than other forms. Younger depression is usually characterized by a deep feeling of sadness. Seniors, on the other hand, may not seem any sadder or notice they are particularly more down than usual. Seniors that suffer from depression that hits later in life usually experience more of the physical and cognitive symptoms associated with depression. Physical symptoms can include headaches, backaches, and fatigue, while cognitive symptoms commonly include forgetfulness, difficulty reasoning and a decrease in thinking time.
Even if someone is fully aware of many of the common symptoms prevalent in senior depression, it can still be difficult to identify. A few things that may trigger you to pay a little more attention include sudden weight loss or a loss of interest in things that were once a past time. Another red flag could be a change in sleep patterns. An elder could experience difficulty sleeping or they could fall on the other end of the spectrum and find themselves needing more sleep.
Deborah Serani Psy.D. points out three areas to examine when trying to identify senior depression. They include behavioral, physical and cognitive symptoms.
|Loss of interest
Decreased ability to care for self
Feeling like a burden to others
Loss of self-confidence
Pacing or fidgeting
|Excessive aches and pains
Fatigue or reduction in energy
Increase or decrease in appetite or weight
Increase or decrease in sleeping
Slowness in movements or gait
Vascular changes in brain or body
Thoughts of hopelessness
Rapid mental decline
Slowed decision making
Thoughts of death or suicide
Reasons Depression in the Elderly Often Goes Untreated
Despite its significance, senior depression often goes untreated.
Misinterpreted as Normal
Many times depression in the elderly goes unnoticed because people assume the symptoms they are experiencing are a normal part of aging. We would like to clarify that depression is not a normal part of aging.
Also to blame for the number of untreated cases of senior depression is the long list of medical conditions that bear many of the same symptoms. Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer are a few of these conditions. While many seniors are diagnosed with a chronic illness or illnesses, others experience significant social changes, often resulting in symptoms that overlap with those found in senior depression.
Possibly the most heartbreaking reason seniors live out the remainder of their life feeling depressed is because they feel something is wrong with them. They fear that admitting that they have a mental health issue will result in them being teased. Their fear of embarrassment prevents them from seeking the help they desperately need. Suffering in silence only makes feelings of depression worse.
Another reason senior depression goes untreated is seniors can’t afford care or they make the assumption they won’t be able to. It is important to let them know there are resources available.
The Costs of Not Addressing Depression in the Elderly
The costs of not doing anything about senior depression far outweigh the monetary costs of paying for help. Untreated senior depression can be fatal. Seniors who are not treated for their depression are prone to committing suicide. One of the most difficult statistics to hear is that the majority of older adults who commit suicide take the initiative to seek out help for their depression.
- 20% see a doctor the same day they commit suicide
- 40% see a doctor the week they commit suicide
- 70% see a doctor the month they commit suicide
There are serious consequences to not dealing with depression in the elderly. One of the most important things we can do is to spread the message that the problem exists and help change the misconception that it is something to be ashamed of. Recognizing that depression is not a normal part of aging is a great first step.