It’s hard to watch a loved one struggle with depression. But, depression in older adults is often under-diagnosed. While it’s normal to experience periods of sadness after loss, contrary to popular belief, depression is not a normal part of aging. Here’s what to look for and how to help a loved one with depression.
If you’re reading this article, chances are you are concerned about someone you care about. Maybe you’ve noticed your mom has lost a considerable amount of weight. Maybe your dad seems to be unusually short every time you talk to him. No matter your reason for reading this article, we commend you for being proactive in seeking help.
Depression in the Elderly
With increasing risk of health challenges, loss of friends and family, and an abundance of other things out of your control as you age, it’s no wonder that older adults are at such an increased risk of experiencing depression. Depression affects more than 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans age 65 or older.
“As we grow older, we often face significant life changes that can increase the risk for depression,” says Karen Detka, Resident Care Director at The Arbors at Westfield. “Health problems, the death of a spouse or friends, fears over financial problems, loneliness and isolation — they can all lead to depression.”
The challenge is that many of the symptoms of depression in older adults — such as restlessness, fatigue, and the inability to concentrate or remember things — are also typical symptoms that might initially suggest other types of medical problems. Add to that the fact that the symptoms also may differ somewhat from symptoms in younger adults.
“A lot of people try to hide it, too,” Detka says. “Mom doesn’t want to bother you. She knows you’re working 40 hours a week and taking care of the kids. So she says, ‘I’m OK. I’m fine.’”
Signs of Depression in the Elderly to Watch For
Symptoms of depression in your mom or dad might not look like what you’d expect. Key signs to look for include:
- Memory problems
- Social withdrawal
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Vague complaints of pain
- Inability to sleep
- Delusions (fixed false beliefs)
“Maybe you call your mom every day, but then when you go to visit, you notice she hasn’t cleaned the house. That can be a clue that Mom is depressed,” Detka says. “Maybe no one comes to see her. She’s home alone all day. She doesn’t take pride in her home anymore.”
Adds the Resident Care Director at The Arbors at Stoneham, Nancy Ishkanian: “You should be looking for an increase in isolation, a decrease in activities that they were formally still very interested in pursuing, changes in sleep patterns, and sometimes even a more irritable mood that you’re not sure where it came from.”
What Depression Is Not
Depression is not, however, simply sadness and grief. “Clinical depression is totally different than sadness,” Detka says.
Unlike sadness, depression doesn’t just go away by itself. “Adult children might think that their parents should just snap out of it,” Ishkanian says. “But depression is a serious condition.”
It can last for months, even years. And if depression goes untreated, it increases the chances of heart disease and suppresses the immune system, raising the risk of infection. Tragically, depression is the single most significant risk factor for suicide in the elderly population.
How to Treat Depression
The good news is depression can be treated. “There is no need for people to suffer from depression,” Ishkanian says. “There really is help.”
According to The National Alliance on Mental Illness, once diagnosed, 80 percent of people suffering from depression can be effectively treated. There is a range of options available to help address symptoms of depression including medication, therapy, connecting with peers, and alternative therapies.
How to Address Depression with an Elderly Parent
If you notice your loved one exhibiting signs of depression, it is important to talk to them. But keep in mind there is a stigma that surrounds psychological symptoms and mental illness, particularly for their generation.
“It’s important to honor your family member,” Ishkanian says. “Maybe you say something like: ‘It looks like you don’t feel so great right now. I think you could probably feel better. I wonder if there’s a way we could talk to your doctor. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. But I wonder if there’s a way you could feel better.’ That’s hard to argue with.”
Then suggest that your mom see their primary care provider, “especially if she’s had this doctor for 20 years,” Detka says. “The older generation always listens to the doctor. If the doctor says, ‘I’m noticing you’re just not your happy self when you come to see me anymore,’ that can really help Mom admit it more easily.”
Before making an appointment with your loved one’s doctor, you may want to call them to discuss the issues your elderly parent is experiencing. (Note: It might be necessary to have a health care proxy in place to speak with your loved one’s doctor.)
How Assisted Living Can Help
If your loved one struggles with depression, especially if they live alone, it might be a sign to start exploring assisted living options.
Moving into assisted living offers seniors a community where they can find a strong social environment and support network. Research shows that an active social life improves physical, mental, and emotional health, which are especially important for older adults struggling with loneliness and depression.
“Assisted living’s greatest strength is the extra socialization we provide,” Ishkanian says. “From the time you get up in the morning to the time you go to bed, if you want to be social we have it here.”
Another way assisted living helps people cope with depression is that it empowers residents to feel engaged and enjoy a strong purpose in life.
“Our Activity Director, Mary, recognizes that they want to feel useful,” Detka says. “She recognizes that we need to give them self-worth. For example, we have one lady who loves to knit and crochet. So what does Mary do? We have a craft fair every year, and Mary has her run a table. We have one man who has Greek heritage. Twice now Mary has had him cook a Greek meal. It makes them feel good. They’re not just waiting to die.”
Depression is just one of the signs it’s time to start considering making the move into assisted living. For a closer look at the other six signs, download our eBook 7 Warning Signs It’s Time to Make the Move to Assisted Living.