The stereotype of the grumpy senior citizen is not a fair representation of how a person should feel when they get older. While some conditions can lead to mental health changes, these should not be ignored. It’s important to seek help if you or a senior you love is exhibiting signs of depression.
More than 19 million people in the U.S. are affected by depression each year. Out of the approximately 34 million Americans who are 65 or over, more than two million suffer from depression.
The mental health disorder can appear on its own due to life changes or with a co-occurring illness like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cancer, and heart disease.
The older a person gets, the more likely they are to go through difficult life events, like the death of someone they love. One-third of windows and widowers show signs of depression during the first month after losing a spouse. Half of those individuals remain clinically depressed for the following year.
Depression can also lead to thoughts of suicide. It’s considered a significant predictor of suicide in older adults. People over age 65 account for around 20% of suicide deaths. White males who are over age 85 have nearly six times the suicide rate in the United States with 65.3 deaths per 100,000.
People with depression may also face increased financial costs because of the disorder. Healthcare costs are around 50% higher for older adults who show signs of depression compared to those who do not.
Understanding the disorder makes a big difference in the life of a senior with depression.
According to a National Mental Health Association survey conducted in 1996, around 68% of participants over age 65 knew little to nothing about depression. Only 38% of respondents agreed that depression is a health problem. And only 42% said they would seek support from a medical professional if they experience depression. The rest reported that they would try to “handle it themselves.”
What’s worse is that over half of participants, approximately 58%, believed that depression is just a normal part of getting older.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Depression is a disorder and should not be considered a normal way to go through life at any age. That’s why everyone – especially seniors – should know the signs of depression.
Becoming Pessimistic or Feeling Hopeless
Seniors who exhibit personality changes, like becoming pessimistic, should be evaluated immediately. Pessimism and feeling hopeless are common signs of depression. Personality changes can also indicate another underlying problem, like dementia.
These changes should be evaluated by a medical professional. Seniors should talk to their healthcare provider and be honest about changes to ensure that they receive the care they need.
Feelings of Helplessness, Worthlessness, or Guilt
Feeling worthless, helpless, or guilty are also common signs of depression. Many people with the condition engage in self-blame, even in situations that they have no control over or did nothing wrong. Others report feeling like they have nothing to offer the world.
Self-blame often comes with over-generalization of situations to reflect the patient’s mental state. For example, a depressed person may think that if they fail at one activity, it means that they are a complete failure. They take one external situation and turn it into a general, internal thought that coincides with their negative outlook.
A person who is experiencing these feelings should focus on being kind to themselves and avoid negative thinking. Situations should be reframed to be more realistic and positive. It is not easy but will gradually get easier the more you do it. This is a good method to share with seniors who have depression and experience feelings of guilt and worthlessness.
Losing Interest in Once-Loved Activities
Anhedonia refers to a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed or a decreased ability to experience pleasure. It isn’t exclusive to depression but is considered a core symptom of it.
Seniors with depression may suddenly become disinterested in their favorite pastimes. The physical limitations of aging can make it impossible for someone to do things they once enjoyed, which can cause or worsen depression. In other cases, they may be physically capable of engaging in a hobby but simply choose not to do so.
Patients may be advised to schedule a consultation with a psychologist or psychiatrist to diagnose and treat the condition. Visits with a therapist can also help.
Lower Energy Levels and Fatigue
Decreased energy and fatigue are also common signs of depression. This can occur due to the condition or as a result of its other symptoms, like poor diet, inactivity, and insomnia. Inactivity caused by depression can lead to physical discomfort like joint pain and stiffness.
Exercise is beneficial in staving off depression in seniors. Finding a senior-friendly exercise routine is a good first step. Physical activity releases endorphins that make a person feel good. It also helps build strength, endurance, and energy. Staying fit improves cognitive function as well.
Make sure the workout routine you or your loved one chooses is suitable based on their age and mobility. Even adding short sessions throughout the week can have a positive effect.
Unexplained Change in Appetite
Over and under eating can be a sign of depression in seniors. This is because many of the regions in the brain that are used to generate appetitive responses are also associated with depression.
Poor eating habits will lead to other health concerns, so they should be addressed right away. Eating a nutritious diet and making sure the recommended daily quantities are adhered to is a good start. You or your loved one should also consult a doctor to seek treatment for depression and to ensure that no other health issues are contributing to the situation.
Difficulty Remembering or Making Decisions
Depression can affect cognitive abilities. A person with the disorder may have difficulty processing and remembering information. It can also cause indecisiveness.
Seniors with depression may exhibit an inability to adapt to changing situations. They also may show poor executive functioning, meaning they have trouble completing all steps to accomplish a task or reach a goal.
A senior experiencing these symptoms should be evaluated by a medical professional. They will also need additional support and understanding from loved ones while they find treatment.
Too Much or Too Little Sleep
Depression shares a close connection with sleep. Almost all patients diagnosed with depression also report problems with their sleep patterns. This is one of the first things many doctors look for when determining if a patient has the disorder.
Sleep and depression share a bidirectional relationship. That means that they build off each other. Depression can cause problems with sleep while poor sleep contributes to depression.
Sleep issues that often appear with depression include hypersomnia, insomnia, and obstructive sleep apnea. Insomnia is most common and occurs in an estimated 75% of adults with depression. Only about 20% experience obstructive sleep apnea and 15% experience hypersomnia.
The way sleep is affected can change. For example, a single period of depression can switch between hypersomnia and insomnia. Finding treatment for depression is the best way to stop or reduce sleep-related symptoms.
Thoughts of Suicide or Attempted Suicide
If you or a senior you love express thoughts of suicide or attempts suicide, seek professional help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day and can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.
Thoughts and threats of suicide should always be taken seriously. While seeking help, the patient should be placed in a safe environment. If they are at home, that means removing anything that could be used to harm themselves, like pills or weapons.
While therapy may be the initial approach to treating depression, it may not be enough. Patients who feel suicidal should be evaluated and may require antidepressant medication. A medical professional can determine the best course of action to protect the patient and help them find treatment.
Senior depression is a serious issue that can appear regardless of health status, living situation, or lifestyle. Assisted living residents should let staff know if they experience any of the symptoms outlined above.