We all experience periods of sadness. But for some, feelings of sorrow and darkness are the nagging companions preventing them from drawing any enjoyment from life. Today doctors define these prolonged seasons of sadness as clinical depression. But this hasn’t always been the case. Historically, individuals experiencing depression were said to have melancholia, a spiritual illness caused by an imbalance of mystical bodily fluids called humors. But even as our medical understanding has matured, depression is still widely misunderstood. Especially among the elderly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), major depression affects about 1% – 5% of the general senior population. But some senior populations are much more susceptible. For example, depression rates rise to 11.5% of senior hospital patients and to 13.5% among seniors who require home healthcare. So not only do some seniors experience depression at a greater rate than the general population, doctors and family member often overlook their symptoms. And as a result, many never receive treatment.
Senior Depression Symptoms are Often Overlooked
So why are depressed seniors so often misdiagnosed? Because in many cases, the individual’s symptoms are misunderstood to be a normal reaction to loss, stress, or the aging process. And when you think about it, this is understandable. Seniors frequently experience loss as their families and friends pass away. And the loss of mobility that often comes with aging can lead to increased isolation and loneliness. But sustained periods of sadness aren’t a natural process of aging. And because depression affects seniors differently than younger people, it’s imperative doctors and caregivers understand what to look for.
How is senior depression different?
Depression affects seniors differently than it does in other age groups. It often comes on in conjunction with other illnesses and brings with it an increased risk of heart disease and death. Studies also show that depressed seniors have more difficulty rehabilitating than non depressed seniors. “Studies of nursing home patients with physical illnesses have shown that the presence of depression substantially increases the likelihood of death from those illnesses.” Depression also brings an increased risk of suicide. In fact, men over the age of 80 are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.
Symptoms of Senior Depression
Now that we understand the major toll depression takes on the elderly, how to do a better job of spotting it? According to the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, the most common symptoms of depression in the elderly include:
- Persistent sadness
- Feeling slowed down
- Excessive worries about finances and health problems
- Frequent tearfulness
- Feeling worthless or helpless
- Weight changes
- Pacing or fidgeting
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Somatic complaints (unexplained physical pain or gastrointestinal problems)
- Withdrawal from social activities
It’s possible a senior might experience some of these symptoms without being clinically depressed. The key is duration. “The essential feature of a major depressive episode is a period of at least two weeks when the person experiences either depressed mood (most of the day, nearly every day) or loss of interest or pleasure in nearly all activities.” So if you know or care for a senior who’s experienced any of these symptoms for at least two weeks, you should help them seek treatment.
Fortunately there are several effective treatment options available for older adults. They include:
- Psychotherapy: Ongoing talk therapy can be an effective source of support for older and qualified professional can lead their patients through solution-based therapies that help them eliminate negative thinking patterns.
- Medication: Doctors can prescribe antidepressants to relieve the symptoms of depression. But these medications can have significant side effects, which doctors should closely monitor.
- Support Groups: Joining a group of older adults experiencing similar issues can help many seniors feel less alone and more connected to a broader community.
- Lifestyle Changes: Daily exercise and healthy eating habits can often be just as effective as medication in treating depression. Friends and family can help by making an effort to help their senior loved one get out of the house and feel more engaged with everyday life.
Some seniors have higher risk factors for developing depression than others. They include:
- Being female
- Being single, unmarried, divorced, or widowed
- Lack of a supportive social network
- Stressful life events
In addition, some physical conditions like stroke, hypertension, atrial fibrillation, diabetes, cancer, dementia, and chronic pain can increase a senior’s risk of depression. So if your loved one fits into any of these categories, you should be on increased alert for potential depression symptoms.
Regular Companionship Can Combat Depression
Regular companionship is one of the most effective tools in the fight against depression. Too many seniors spend too much of their time isolated and develop depression as a result of that loneliness. In addition, a regular companion or caretaker can watch for the signs of depression and ensure the individual gets the timely treatment they need. Of course family and friends can’t always provide that necessary companionship. Fortunately that’s where in-home caregivers come in.
Caregivers provide seniors with regular companionship and help with the day-to-day tasks that become more difficult with age. If you know a senior in the greater Phoenix area who could benefit from regular companionship or caregiving services, Generations Home Care can help. You can reach us by phone at 602-595-HOME (4663) or by filling out our contact page. Together we can help all our seniors live healthier and happier lives.