Recognizing Signs of Depression in the Elderly

One of the things caregiver Gunn Leater (profiled in Episode 2 of Your Turn to Care) feared most when faced with the possiblility that her 95-year-old father could no longer attend an adult daycare program was that he would, once again, become seriously depressed.

Caregivers coping with their elderly family members are the most likely to be the first to observe changes in the condition of their patients. As the senior declines, physical changes are clearly noticed and steps are taken to remedy any new symptom. But the caregiver is also often the first person to notice more subtle changes in their emotional and mental disposition. Uniquely, they are the first line of defense of what can be an underlying but devastating condition: depression.

  • Depression in the elderly is a widespread problem that often goes unrecognized and untreated. Studies have shown depression affects more than 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans over the age of 65. Although older people do commonly experience challenges like the deaths of spouses and friends, the loss of their own independence, and chronic illnesses, depression is not a normal part of the aging process. Sadness and grief are normal, temporary reactions to the inevitable losses and hardships of life. Unlike normal sadness, however, clinical depression doesn't go away by itself and lasts for months.
  • Depression in the elderly is often hard to detect. It can be a side effect caused by many drugs routinely prescribed for the elderly. Common symptoms such as fatigue, appetite loss, and trouble sleeping may be ignored, or confused with other conditions that are common in the elderly. Clinical depression can be mistaken for physical illnesses such as thyroid disorders, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, cancer, stroke, or Alzheimer's Disease. Unrecognized and untreated depression can result in cognitive decline and even suicide.
  • Many elderly people and their caregivers do not know that depression is an illness that can be treated. The stigma of mental illness leaves some older people afraid to admit they are depressed. Some older people will not admit to feeling depressed, for fear that they will be seen as abnormal. Or they won't report their depression because they believe that feeling sad is "normal," or that nothing can be done about it. But, once depression is diagnosed, the prognosis is good. 80% of clinically depressed individuals can be effectively treated by medication, psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or any combination of the three.

If you notice any of these symptoms, make an appointment with a physician to rule out any physical causes and to review all medications:

  • Memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Vague complaints of pain
  • Inability to sleep
  • Irritability
  • Not bathing or shaving as often
  • Not taking care of the home
  • Stopping medicines or not taking them correctly


Photo Credit: The image associated with this entry was taken by Flick user Rameshng. It was used under Creative Commons license.

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