While depression can strike anyone, at any age, some of the life changes that come with growing older can trigger it, even in those who have not suffered from mental health problems in the past. Retirement, social isolation, the death of a partner and of friends, and loss of physical ability can all contribute to depression in older people. It can be particularly difficult for older people to overcome depression, as their mental reserves are not normally as strong as younger people’s are.
If you care for or are close to an older adult, it can be easy to feel that you have an endless list of things to think about, from comparing care home insurance to arranging grocery deliveries. So it can be all too easy to forget the need to be aware of the symptoms of possible depression. But it is important. Depression is not an inevitable part of getting older, but something which can be treated in older people just as it can in younger people. Major life changes can contribute depression at any age, so naturally the major changes which come about during old age can do so too.
Depression in older people is often missed, even by those closest to them. The symptoms can often be assumed just to be part of the aging process, or to be signs of physical illness. Depressed people often find it difficult to cope with work and other activities, but many elderly people are without a routine of either, so there are no obvious clues to how they are feeling. Here are some signs that your loved one might be depressed:
- Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Loss of appetite
- Social withdrawal
- Difficulty sleeping
- Physical tiredness and slowness of movement
- Difficulty concentrating
- Restlessness and difficulty relaxing
- Lack of personal care, such as washing and cooking.
Some of these symptoms might be signs that the person is suffering from a physical illness or a neurological problem such as dementia. Speak to your elderly person and try and establish how they are feeling on a day-to-day basis. While everyone feels unhappy or sad from time to time, depression is characterized by persistent, pervasive low mood. In particular, depressed people may experience the following feelings:
- Feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem
- Feelings of guilt and of being a burden to others
- Tendency to anxiety and panic
- Loss of hope
- Desire to avoid social interaction
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
Not all depressed people will experience all of these symptoms, and there may be other related symptoms, but these are the important things to look for. A rapid decline in mental function is more likely an indication of depression, whereas a slower decline may be a sign of dementia. Seek medical advice and never assume that changes in an older person’s mood or functioning are normal or inevitable signs of aging.
Helping Older People with Depression
Helping an older person with depression can be difficult, particularly if the depression results from life changes such as retirement or the death of friends. Treatments including anti-depressants and counseling can be just as effective as they are in younger people, but it may be hard to get an older person to accept help. As they are more likely to live alone and not to be working, older people are more prone to suffer from loneliness as part of their depression. Lack of social support and company can exacerbate depression and make it difficult for depressed older people to help themselves.
The first step to helping a depressed person is to get them diagnosed, so try and persuade them to visit the doctor. They are likely to be prescribed anti-depressants and may be recommended counseling. Most people with depression will get better, but they need support to do so. Make sure you visit regularly, and try and gently encourage your loved one to keep up routine personal care tasks and social visits. Speak to them about their feelings and let them know that you are always there to help when they need a listening ear. Be prepared for the fact that they may not be able to speak at first. Don’t take this as a rejection of you: they likely just need to deal with things themselves before they speak about them.
Above all, be positive and supportive, and you should be able to help them recover.