How To Recognize the Signs of Depression in Older Adults

Health + Wellness, Adult Child   |   By HumanGood

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Sometimes, feeling sad or blue lasts longer than feels comfortable. For Michael, a musician who lives in Southern California, a feeling of worthlessness was one of the key symptoms that suggested he was depressed and led him to seek treatment. Unlike Michael, not all adults know the signs of depression or how to ask for help when they need it. This often extends into the aging population as well.

Adult children, often in the sandwich generation and caught between managing caring for their own children while taking on additional responsibilities for their aging loved one, can often miss signs of depression in their aging parents. Even if they do catch potential signs, they are not always comfortable knowing when or how to step in. 

The first step to getting help and feeling better is to know what depression can look like in older adults. After that, it’s all about honesty. It’s important for family members to avoid being in denial about depression. “This is easy to say, but so very deceiving to understand,” Michael said.

Here’s what you need to know about depression in older adults as well as what you can do to support yourself or others.

Prevalence of Depression in Older Adults

It’s important to note that depression is not a normal part of aging. However, the risk of depression does increase with age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depression is more common in people who are living with chronic conditions or who have challenges in daily function. When you consider that about 80% of seniors have at least one chronic condition that can limit range of motion or physical abilities, it’s no wonder why depression increases with age.

While the majority of seniors are not depressed, the risk increases for those who end up in the hospital, who need additional daily care or who use home health care services. Older adults also often take more than one medication, and depression can be a side effect of some prescriptions taken for blood pressure, anxiety and even Parkinson’s disease.

Further, most seniors end up living with depression without treatment for many years more than their younger peers. The CDC tells us that older adults are often misdiagnosed and even undertreated when it comes to depression or other mental health conditions. This is mostly due to adults not consistently reporting how bad their depression symptoms are to their physicians or treatment team.

One way to advocate for yourself or your loved one is to watch for signs or symptoms that could point to potential depression.

Signs of Depression

Seniors who are living with depression will not all show the same symptoms. Everyone is unique. However, the more you know about potential signs, the better you can support them as they seek medical treatment.

Signs of depression in older adults can include:

  • Sleeping disturbances, whether that is insomnia, having trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Being more irritable or grouchy than usual
  • Feeling restless
  • Loss of interest in social gatherings, hobbies or other activities they once enjoyed
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Never having energy
  • Weight loss or weight gain, typically sudden in nature
  • Chronic pain that does not get better with treatment
  • Increased use of alcohol
  • Attempts at suicide or other self-harming behavior

If you notice any of these signs that continue for weeks or months, it is best to talk about them with a physician. Be honest during your visit so that the doctor can make an appropriate treatment plan.

Supporting a Senior with Depression

If your loved one has been diagnosed with depression, your support can go a long way as they get the treatment they need to feel their best. Start with following any treatment plan from the doctor. Encourage your loved one to take their prescribed medications for depression consistently and remind them that it can take weeks for them to notice a change.

You can also show your support by stopping by with an encouraging word, listening ear or bowl of homemade soup. Try bringing over comforting foods that are also nutritious on your next visit. Even if your loved one isn’t hungry, it’s hard to resist taking a few bites when the company is good.

Reinforce the roles your loved one has in their home, their family and their life. This sense of purpose and importance can go a long way as they begin to shape life after a depression diagnosis. While you are offering positive reinforcement, praise your loved one for seeking help and sticking with their treatment plan.

Connecting with friends and sticking with any follow-up appointments are important after diagnosis. Schedule transportation to and from physician or counseling appointments as needed. Offer to drive them to a support group and sit in the hall while they attend or drive them to meet up with their friends for coffee.

Try to start a new tradition together, such as taking a walk every Sunday or baking cookies every Tuesday evening. This gives your loved one something to look forward to, and it’s a lovely way to connect regularly in a way that feels extra special.

Senior Living Support

Isolation and feelings of loneliness have been proven to increase feelings of depression and anxiety in adults, which means that your loved one might thrive in a community living environment. Senior living communities, such as a Life Plan Community (also known as a continuing care retirement community or CCRC), encourage connections between neighbors, family, staff and friends that can reduce the risk of isolation.

If you aren’t quite sure how to bring up the topic of senior living, download our resource, “5 Steps to Help You Talk to Mom and Dad About Senior Living.” You’ll learn how to make the conversation easier and how to be an effective listener and advocate.

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