Updated: Aug 25, 2021
Over the past few years, there’s been an ongoing conversation surrounding the topic of mental health. It’s a conversation that is slowly removing the stigma attached to needing mental health treatment and dealing with mental illness. Truthfully, it’s a conversation that desperately needs to continue. However, there’s one group that needs to be included within the conversation: the elderly. Oftentimes, when the topic of mental health comes up, it’s focused on young children or young adults who spend time on social media. However, plenty of older people struggle with symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses. This isn’t to be ignored.
Types of Depression
Depression doesn’t just have one face. There are at least nine types of depression. If you’re not careful, you can easily miss the signs of depression in someone else or yourself. Major depression impacts more than 16 million American adults at least once. When a person suffers from major depression, they’ll feel the symptoms constantly. Everything can be perfectly fine, yet they feel worried, tired and despondent. They might lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. It can become an all-consuming experience. Major depression can easily last a few weeks or a few months. Sometimes, it’ll happen one time. There are times throughout a person’s life where they can feel the symptoms of major depression.
Persistent depression is slightly different because it can be a disorder that lasts at least two years or longer. Manic depression, which is also known as bipolar disorder, can be a very intense experience where hospitalization is necessary. Depressive psychosis impacts a person to the point where they experience delusions and hallucinations. They don’t have a good grasp of their reality. Perinatal depression happens when a woman is pregnant. If it happens after childbirth, it’s considered postpartum depression. Other types of depression include premenstrual dysphoric disorder, seasonal depression, situational depression, and atypical depression.
Depression among the Elderly Population
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), depression impacts more than 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans who are over the age of 65. This time of an individual’s life can easily be plagued with a lot of physical health issues, so that can add to one of the reasons why the elderly might experience depression.
If a person experiences depression at this point in their life, it’s not uncommon for them to have battled with it throughout their lifetime. According to NAMI, if it is a person’s first time battling with depression, it can happen in their 60s or even in their 90s for the first time. Depression is no respecter of age.
When an older person is considering suicide, a visit to the doctor might not change that. According to NAMI’s statistics, 20% of people visit the doctor on the day they die. 40% visit during the week that they die. And 70% visit within the month that they die.
Out of all the racial groups within the United States, older Caucasian males are reported to maintain the highest rate of suicide. This is also true for non-suicidal mortality as well.
Even though depression might seem like a grim diagnosis, NAMI reports that 80% of clinically depressed older individuals can be treated with the help of medication, psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy or a mix of the three. Another facet that can help older people is when they have a supportive group of family members and friends to help them boost their spirits.
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Risk Factors for Depression in Seniors
There are numerous risk factors for depression in seniors. Consider this list of ten risk factors.
If you think about the person who experiences a birthday, one of the main things they might feel insecure about is getting older. There is a stigma with age. Plus, American society doesn’t cultivate a culture that respects or takes care of the elderly. If anything, someone who is older might be viewed as someone who is in the way. This can be a depressing experience to be in the position where you’re old enough to be considered elderly. That adjustment is tough for many people to make. Thus, a sense of depression sets in.
Being a Woman
Women are naturally nurturing. They tend to thrive when they’re surrounded by love and support. They’re deeply connected to family and friends. After all, women are the ones who tend to nurture and cover the family from an emotional aspect. As a woman gets older, there’s less that she can do. She also has to emotionally prepare herself to let go of the people she loves so much.
When you live alone and you’re in the phase of life where retirement is upon you, you have a lot of free time. It’s often stated that idle time is the devil’s playground. This means that when you don’t have an active agenda or tasks to keep your mind occupied, it’s easy to become idle, lonely and destructive.
Divorce is such a traumatic experience for anyone to go through. After all, when you said your vows to your spouse, there was a promise to be there forever. When forever ends because of divorce, this can impact a person for years. There are plenty of people who never get over the loss of their marriage. Even with the right therapy treatments and finding a new spouse, many individuals struggle with feelings of insecurity and rejection. Carrying those burdens can lead to depressed feelings.
Lack of Education
In a society where education is in abundance, there are plenty of people who didn’t get the chance to experience their educational dreams. As life circumstances come in the way, it can be hard for many people to commit to going back to school. When a person is older, they can still do it. However, those feelings of regret are real. A lack of education can also lead to feelings of inferiority as well.
Inability to Function
As a person gets older, they’ll naturally lose the mobility and strength they had when they were younger. As a person gets into their senior years, the inability to function can include issues like blindness, deafness and more. Mobility even means being able to jump in the car and safely drive to the local grocery store. As a person gets older, they can’t do those things anymore. This can lead to depression, resentment, and frustration.
As a person gets sick, it takes a toll on their entire body. However, many people don’t consider the fact that a physical illness also plays a lot of tricks on the mind. When a person is linked to an IV and a bedpan every day, this can be an uncomfortable experience. Being sick is already tough on its own. To get sick with no knowledge of a potential recovery can be debilitating on the mind.
A Decrease in Cognitive Function
As a person ages, their brain can decrease in its cognitive function. This is one of the reasons why seniors are encouraged to do puzzles and engage in activities that force them to actively use their brains. As the brain loses its cognitive function and a person recognizes the difference, this can lead to some low experiences in depressive states.
While many people think that certain drugs will make things better, drugs can make things worse. If a person was already prone to using drugs regularly, it can be considered one of the risk factors in depression. After smoking for years, a person’s body will feel the ramifications of that habit. Whether it’s through difficulty with the lungs, depression or cancer, drugs offer no benefits to a senior’s health. This is one of the reasons why drugs are so commonly discouraged.
The same sentiment is true for alcohol. There are tons of people who try to wash away their miseries with alcohol. Alcohol is no substitute for therapy. It’ll only provide a temporary numbing sensation to whatever is going on inside. Furthermore, if a person was already an alcoholic, this can be a risk factor for depression as a person ages.
How do you recognize symptoms of depression in the elderly?
It can be challenging to fully recognize the symptoms of depression in the elderly. This is because a lot of symptoms look a lot like the aging process. It’s easy to assume that a person is feeling the impact of the aging process because they are getting older. A lack of motivation or weight loss can be associated with depression in the elderly. If an older person talks a lot about death or struggles with their memory, these can be really clear signs of depression as well. If a person forgets to take care of their body by missing meals or not showering, these symptoms can also be indicators as well.
Signs of Depression in the Elderly
Extended Amount of Sleep
When an individual sleeps for an excessive amount of time, this is probably a sign of depression. This is true for most people who are depressed. It’s one thing to be tired because of a really busy season at work or juggling a bunch of children as a parent. However, if an older person is sleeping for hours on end, this rest might be numbing the pain that they experience when they’re awake.
There’s nothing worse than feeling like you can’t do anything about your situation. When you try to make things better on your own to no avail, depression can set in. For an elderly person, there are a lot of experiences and activities they probably want to do. Because of their increasing age, the body and mind aren’t able to perform at the same capacity. Furthermore, other issues might plague a person as they get older (divorce, loneliness, etc.). Those debilitating feelings don’t always go away. As a result, a feeling of hopelessness can block the view of any chance of a brighter future.
No Interest in Socializing
Sometimes, socializing might remind a person of what they miss or don’t have. Other times, it’s a lot easier for a person to sit and wallow in their sadness. If an elderly person isn’t interested in enjoying the company of others, this might be a sign of a deep depression that they don’t want anyone to see or know about.
If an elderly person is dealing with pain from arthritis or a particular sickness, this is understandable. However, when there is no particular reason why a person is dealing with aches and pains, this might be a result of depression. Many times, a person might feel the symptoms of depression on a physical level. The mind is extremely powerful in that way.
When a person drowns their sorrows in a bottle of alcohol, no good can come from that experience. If you see an elderly loved one who tends to drink a whole lot more than usual, this might be a sign that they’re depressed. If anything, it’s important to find ways to beat the depression because alcohol can cause some serious adverse effects on an aging body.
Symptoms of Depression in the Elderly
According to studies published by the Harvard Medical School, there are quite a few symptoms that are considered somatic. There are also cognitive symptoms that fall under the symptoms of depression.
It’s good for an elderly person to have access to tools that will allow a family member, friend or caretaker to keep track of their vital signs. If heart palpitations happen often, it’s important to get a doctor to double-check and make sure there’s no underlying medical emergency. If there’s no sign of physical danger, the heart palpitations can be a direct link to depression.
Some people struggle with restlessness when they’re depressed. Their problems or sad thoughts keep them awake at night. This can lead to irritability for many because they struggle to deal with the shift in their mood and the lack of sleep. To combat the restlessness, a doctor might prescribe a sleeping aid to help the elderly individual get some help drifting off to sleep.
Alternatively, fatigue can be a sign of depression. To catch the fatigue, consider when an elderly person complains of being tired. If they’re tired as soon as they wake up in the morning, this isn’t because they need more rest. Depression is probably the issue. Many people underestimate how draining mental issues can be. A person can sleep for hours on end and still be tired because staying awake is such a painful and stressful experience for them.
A tremor is a symptom you wouldn’t be able to see firsthand. This is a symptom that the doctors would have to detect. If an elderly loved one is complaining of discomfort that might point to tremors, take them to see a doctor. A doctor’s visit can provide clarity for why the tremors are happening and how to make them stop. If depression is the reason, a doctor might suggest medication, therapy, and other beneficial treatments.
If an elderly individual can’t seem to keep their food down, it might be easy to think that it’s something in the food that’s disagreeing with their digestive system. However, if they seem to be allergic to almost everything, consider the fact that this might be a symptom of depression. If an elderly person lost their best friend or dealt with a really sad loss, their body might go into the grieving process by vomiting excessively.
Fainting might seem like an unusual symptom of depression. However, it’s a possibility and is one of the most dangerous symptoms because you never know when it might happen. If an elderly person faints, falls and injures themselves, this can lead to catastrophic issues. If fainting spells start to happen, it’s important to get to the bottom of the symptoms as soon as possible. This is where quick and swift treatments for depression will be incredibly effective.
It’s easy to see when a person is perspiring more than usual. If they’ve only taken a few steps and break into a sweat, don’t dismiss this as a hot flash. Depression can easily manifest itself in the physical form. The body doesn’t know how to cope with the depression so it releases the tension in the form of sweat on the body.
When an elderly person seems to deal with a lot of worry, angst or fear, this is another sign of depression. This is true for many people who deal with anxiety. It’s not uncommon for anxiety and depression to walk hand in hand. Take note of the conversations they tend to linger on. If they are constantly repeating their concerns or worries, chances are they’re anxious. When the mind is constantly racing because of anxious thoughts, depression is usually close by.
When a person is irritable and cranky, it’s important to dig a little deeper. It’s one thing if an elderly person isn’t getting enough sleep because their bed is uncomfortable. That can lead to irritability. However, if their living situation is perfect and there’s nothing to be irritable about, chances are that they’re trying to work through a depressed mood. When irritability pops up, it can be misguided. This is why it’s important to avoid taking anything personally. When a person is depressed, it can get misdirected toward the people they care about.
Dizzy spells aren’t too far away from the experiences people have when they feel like fainting. If an elderly person seems to complain about feeling dizzy a lot, it’s important to get them checked by a medical professional. If there are no signs of vertigo or other medical possibilities, have conversations with them about their thoughts, feelings, and routines. If any of their patterns seem to mirror the signs and symptoms of depression, that’s probably where the dizziness stems from.
Dealing with An Aging Parent’s Depression
Above all, patience is key. Because you don’t know what it’s like to be in that circumstance, it’s important to exert patience. You don’t want your parent to shut you out of the equation. However, it is good to keep the conversation going. Try your best to be consistent in your pursuit of how your parent is doing. If you can develop a supportive team to help you as you traverse this journey, that will be helpful. It’s already challenging to deal with the reality of a parent’s mortality. It’s another thing to experience their grief and depression in the later years of their life. As you want to remain a listening ear for whatever they need, don’t forget to fill yourself up as well. You don’t want to burn yourself out during the process of caring for your parent through their depressed states. It’s also a really wise idea to normalize the idea of taking medication. Try to help them see that medication can make their symptoms a lot better. When they’re able to shift their moods with a medical boost, they can have a completely different experience as they continue the aging process.
Elderly Mental Health Services
It is important to remember that you can’t fight this fight on your own. When you’re dealing with an elderly loved one who is battling depression, this can be an all-consuming ordeal. This is one of the main reasons why it is wise to take advantage of mental health services that are available for the elderly. Elderly mental health services are available so that families don’t have to feel alone as they navigate the sensitive waters of depression. Plus, depression is treatable. A person doesn’t have to fight depression indefinitely. With the right treatments and senior behavioral health services, an individual can beat depression.
If you’d like for people to come to your home, there are professional services that are offered by companies like Centric Healthcare. They provide in-home mental health services that cater to the needs of the elderly loved one in your life. It’s important to find a health group that is filled with professional, certified and caring staff. When you’re dealing with depression in elderly patients, sensitivity training and care are essential components of proper treatment.
If you’re someone who prefers to keep your loved one at your home, there are personnel who will work with you and your family’s needs. They can come at your convenience and cater to your schedule. This way, you’ll be able to ask questions, have conversations with your loved one and address any lingering symptoms or signs that might point to depression.
Elderly mental health is such a delicate issue that many people don’t know how to address. Though the conversation continues to flourish, it needs to expand to inform more about how to be sensitive to the signs of depression in elderly friends and family members.
Thankfully, there are ways to actively work on preventing depression in seniors. Some studies have questioned whether depression prevention is plausible or possible. However, those studies suggested that there will be a need for more trials and studies to see what the most effective routes might be.
One of the most important ways to potentially prevent depression in seniors is by prioritizing rest. When a person has insomnia, they’re more likely to experience the woes of both depression and anxiety. There are plenty of people who struggle terribly with developing a proper sleep regimen. There is a direct connection between poor sleep and the “increase of pro-inflammatory cytokine activity.” When the brain isn’t getting the chance to reset, this makes a person more prone to experiencing the symptoms of depression.
Start by monitoring the way your elderly loved one sleeps. A good sleep regimen can be beneficial. To cultivate the right sleep regimen, take a look at their habits. If they’re always falling asleep with the television or smartphone, this will keep their brain awake for longer periods of time. This also prevents them from getting deep, quality sleep. Consider adding different incentives like a lavender essential oil in a diffuser. Lavender is a very calming and relaxing essential oil with lots of healing properties. Other tactics might include chamomile tea, a warm bath and a visit from a loved one.
While sleeping tips might not replace the powerful effects of mental health therapy treatments, it’s good to combine a mix of medical and holistic tacts. Loma Linda, California is known as one of the healthiest cities in America. It also has a large population of seniors who are active, healthy and happy. They follow a program called NEWSTART. The acronym covers important facets like nutrition, exercise, water, sunshine, temperance, air, rest and trust in God. As a result of using this program, many can offset their medical symptoms and mental health issues.
Know that there is hope on the other side of depression. As long as you’re proactive in seeing the signs and treating them, an elderly loved one can enjoy their golden years in pure bliss.